ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMMES EVER IMPLEMENTED
“The core problem is not ideology
but poverty, especially in mountain areas. Whereas direct efforts to
repress political extremism and the drug trade have largely failed,
the problem of rural poverty can be successfully addressed today.”
Testimony by Frederick Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus
Institute, Johns Hopkins University, to the US Senate Foreign
Relations Committee on “The problem of Islamic extremism”, November
[*Today, I am no longer persuaded by this argument of a causal connection
between the programme that I initiated and co-ordinated
in Tajikistan from 1992 to 2003 and any diminution of political extremism in Central Asia.
In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, repressive régimes were as violent as the Islamists they
were supposedly containing with Western military and financial support. The programme was certainly worth
doing for its own long-term contribution to reducing human suffering, but not because
of any putative corresponding reduction in "Islamic extremism" or terrorism.
By necessity, I negotiated with the Tajik
version of the Taliban - and even with the precursor of Al Quaeda that the local
mujaheddin called at the time "the Arabs". I am not, however, sure that feeding
the people in proto-Taliban areas of the Pamirs in the early 1990s made these proto-Taliban
any less violent - it only made them less relevant.
Today I lean rather to the conclusions of William Easterly ("The War on Terror vs.
the War on Poverty", New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016 - see
"The connection between the wars on poverty and terror had two unintentional negative
consequences that are becoming more evident as time passes. First, it deepened negative
stereotypes about the poor that contribute to the current wave of xenophobia against
refugees and immigrants in the US and Europe—attitudes suggested by the Brexit vote
and the rise of Donald Trump and other far-right leaders. Second, in justifying support
for dictatorial regimes, the connection discredited Western advocacy of the ideals of
democracy worldwide. .... The negative stereotypes about the world’s poor got worse
during the War on Terror because it was alleged that poverty was the principal cause of
terrorism. .... Unfortunately for this politically convenient outcome, the idea that
poverty is the root of terrorism never was based on concrete evidence. A considerable
number of systematic studies by social scientists soon after September 11 failed to
find a link between poverty and the propensities of young people to become terrorists.
Researchers found that terrorists and their supporters were usually well above the
poverty line and had secondary or higher education." RM]
During the Soviet period, Gorno-Badakhshan, the poorest and most
isolated part of the poorest Republic in the Soviet Union, was unable
to feed its population from its own production: valleys are narrow and
most of the land area is above 2,500m; in 1992, of a total of about
16,000 hectares of arable land, only 12,000 hectares were actually
under food crops. During the Soviet period, under the centrally
planned economy, subsidies were introduced distorting the hard law of
nature that applies to isolated and poor rural areas and is at the
root of subsistence farming: as many persons can live in a given area
as the land there will support, others die or emigrate. At the end of
the Soviet era, Gorno-Badakhshan was dependent for 85% of its food and
all of its fuel on subsidised supplies from other regions. The region
benefited from advanced social services out of all proportion to the
actual economic wealth of the region: at the end of the Soviet era,
male and female literacy in Gorno-Badakhshan was 99% and there were
more hospital beds per head of population than in most Western
This dependence was deliberate. Since the subjugation of Central Asia
by the Russians from the mid-nineteenth century on, the Pamirs were of
great strategic importance: first, in the “Great Game” played out
between soldiers and adventurers of the Russian and British Empires,
then in the contested area of Turkestan immediately after the
Bolshevik revolution and finally for military access to Afghanistan
after the invasion of that country by the Soviet army in 1979.
Warning of famine
In 1991, leaders of the Ismaili community in Gorno-Badakhshan
(representing some two-thirds of the local population) drew the
attention of His Highness the Aga Khan to the potential danger of
famine in the region as a result of the cessation of Soviet subsidies
following the independence of Tajikistan.
Consultants sent by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) (www.akdn.org
) to Gorno-Badakhshan in 1992 to review opportunities for long-term
development programmes reported that, before any longer-term
development programme could be envisaged, a solution must be found to
the immediate short-term threat of famine arising from the already
acute food shortages in the region: people would be unable to
participate in development activities until they had food in their
Preparations were made for a humanitarian relief programme targeted at
the most vulnerable families. In December 1992, civil war broke out in
Tajikistan. Many years earlier, large numbers of Pamiris had been
forcibly resettled in the Southwest of the country to develop cotton
production; others had moved to Dushanbe where many were active in
intellectual life. The civil war led to brutal reprisals against the
Pamiri ethnic groups and many fled to the relative security of their
homeland, swelling the population of Gorno-Badakhshan from 200,000 to
more than 250,000, all of whom had to be considered as vulnerable
following the complete breakdown in supplies from the capital.
Since 1993, more than 200,000 metric tons of relief supplies have been
transported from Osh in Kyrgyzstan and distributed throughout Gorno-Badakhshan,
an average truck journey of 2,000 km over passes above 4,000m. This
same route is now being used to deliver relief supplies to the
vulnerable population of Afghan Badakshan, across the river Pyandj,
the frontier between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
humanitarian assistance on Taldyk pass (3,615m)
A local NGO, the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme (MSDSP),
was set up in Moscow, Osh and Khorog in order to undertake
procurement, logistics and monitoring for the humanitarian programme.
Agricultural reform programme
In parallel with the humanitarian programme, an agricultural reform
programme was initiated, to promote agricultural production and
productivity and reduce dependence on subsidised and free food. A
number of other measures were also introduced with a view to
increasing rural incomes and access to food through increased
In late 1993, MSDSP obtained a landmark decision from the local
government in Gorno-Badakhshan that unused or under-utilised state
farm land could be distributed to villagers who wished to become
private farmers. Village-level dialogues were held throughout Gorno-Badakhshan
to encourage private farming. Private farmers were assisted, on
credit, with improved seeds and fertiliser and received technical
assistance from trained MSDSP staff – a channel building programme was
initiated to extend the area of arable land available to private
inspecting a new variety of wheat
Since then, almost all state farm land has been placed under private
management in agreement with the local government and some 25,000
private farmers are now working with MSDSP in Gorno-Badakhshan. Total
land under private management is now more than 11,000 hectares. Yields
of potatoes and wheat per hectare have more than doubled. By 2002,
Gorno-Badakhshan was producing 70% of its basic food needs (compared
with 15% in 1993) as a result of improved cereal yields and an
increase in the area of land under food crop cultivation.
Self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs is now within sight.
A young family
member brings the harvest home
Wheat, barley, rye and potatoes continue to be grown as the main food
crops. Seed returned in repayment of loans is made available to
participating farmers for spring and autumn planting, together with
fruit tree saplings. Seed was procured locally, in order to encourage
farmers to market their surplus, and to inject cash into a
cash-starved economy. High-quality seed, fertiliser, fuel,
agricultural machinery and dairy-processing and other equipment
continue to be made available on a cash or credit basis.
A horticultural programme has tested and introduced new varieties of
vegetables in order to provide a balanced diet and a sustainable
supply of vitamins and minerals: nine new varieties of beans and six
varieties of peas were tested - suitable varieties, which are well
adapted to the particular climatic conditions of the region, have been
identified and planted. In addition to increasing fruit and vegetable
production through the provision of fertiliser, seeds, saplings, and
plastic tunnels for small greenhouses, the horticultural programme
also provides training and equipment for processing and preserving
horticultural produce, including apricot drying. Two greenhouses from
the Soviet era were rehabilitated: they are heated and irrigated all
year round from nearby natural hot springs and can supply a small, but
profitable market for out-of-season vegetables to the regional
capital, Khorog, and other areas.
A livestock programme is being implemented to address poor animal
health, insufficient fodder availability and lack of organised
marketing systems. A breeding programme aims to improve livestock
quality and yields of meat and dairy produce.
A yak is prepared
for milking in Murghab district
In order to improve livestock health as well as to enable herders to
process raw milk into marketable products, fodder seed, concentrated
feed, medicines and vaccines, and basic dairy processing equipment are
procured and distributed on a sale or credit basis. Local processing
is being encouraged with a view to adding value to livestock products.
In addition, small animal husbandry activities, largely managed by
women, have been initiated in both regions, including poultry,
wool-processing and bee-keeping.
The programme has now moved beyond the exclusive and urgent focus on
food self-sufficiency and now deals with broader long-term economic
and social development at village level. The underlying philosophy is
that rural economic development is best catalysed and sustained
through village-level institutions that are autonomous and
transparent, and that contribute to democratic norms of behaviour and
to the growth of civil society. Civil-society organisations such as
MSDSP were an entirely new concept in the region in 1993.
Village Organisations draw up a village plan, determine village needs
and priorities, manage infrastructure projects (such as mini
hydroelectric plants, road and bridge construction, school repair),
and also grant microcredit for small enterprise
and small trading,
with special attention to women’s needs. Internal rules of the VO
require that if the leader of a VO is a man, the deputy leader must be
Contribution to peace and stability in
By improving food security in Gorno-Badakhshan and the Karategin/Rasht
valley – regions to which large numbers of former opposition fighters
fled during (or returned after) the main fighting in the Tajik civil
war (1992-1993) – and by offering the opportunity of private farming
and credit, the programme has contributed to the promotion of peace
and stability in Tajikistan and to alternatives to criminal activity
such as the drug trade. Many former fighters are now MSDSP farmers.
From the outset of the programme, agricultural inputs have been
provided on credit, not as free distribution. The sustainability of
the programme depends on farmers’ ability to live without subsidies.
The key philosophy of the programme is that villagers should be
empowered to take the decisions necessary for the development of their
communities with a minimum of guidance and technical support from
outside, and that such support should come from local trained staff
rather than expatriates. At the same time the programme helps to
develop accountable and democratic local institutions.
inspect the wheat crop
As already noted, the Soviet Union brought high levels of social
development even to far distant corners of the USSR such as Gorno-Badakhshan.
The Aga Khan Development Network is working with the government of
Gorno-Badakhshan on reform in the social sector, to help local
authorities to cope more efficiently with reduced resources while at
the same time benefiting from new approaches in education and
healthcare provision and related training.
Experience with reforms in Gorno-Badakhshan contributes to the
formulation of national reform policies.
AKDN programmes in Tajikistan have been funded with the generous
support of the governments of Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, the
Netherlands, Switzerland, Tajikistan, the United Kingdom and USA as
well as the European Union, the Asian Development Bank and the World
Evaluations of the programme by donor agencies have been highly
complimentary. In 1997, a joint Swiss/German team reported on the
humanitarian programme that “in few other places has leakage of food
aid been documented at such low levels (average loss well below 1%)”.
A German government report concluded in 2000 that the agricultural
programme was one of the most successful it had funded.
An update on the state of rural development in the Pamirs can be found
All text and
photographs (c) Robert Middleton 2002
Web master Romanyuk