My first trip to Central Asia. First impressions of Tajikistan, world’s most remittance-dependent country (and a very big flagpole)

Spent last week in Tajikistan, my first trip to the former underbelly of the Soviet Union, aka Central Asia. I was there to help our Tajikistancountry team think through some work on improving accountability in the water sector (more interesting than it sounds – blog tomorrow). And weatherwise, looks like I got out just in time. But today is first impressions.

Basic background: poorest country in Central Asia, average per cap income around $780 (2010). Eight million people, with about a million of them working in Russia for most of the year (see below). Independence in 1990s swiftly followed by bloody civil war, in which 50-100,000 people died, leading to victory of current president, Emomali Rahmon, whose beetle-browed, half smiling image adorns large numbers of public buildings in Dushanbe.

This is pretty restrained by Central Asian standards: ‘Niyazov (dictator of Turkmenistan for 16 years after fall of Soviet Union) outlawed ballet and opera, replaced the word ‘bread’ with his mother’s name, swapped January with his own name and built golden statues of himself, one of which rotated to continually face the sun.’ (from Understanding Central Asia.)

Skimming the websites on my return, I’m struck by the gulf between how people (villagers, NGOs, aid workers) talked to me last week, and the upbeat tone of things like the World Bank ‘snapshot’. High growth, steady progress and ‘extreme poverty rates, based on the food poverty line, declined from 73 percent in 1999 to 14 percent in 2009.’

flagpoleTajikistan has at least two global claims to fame: the tallest flagpole in the world (a gift to Freudians everywhere). And the world’s highest level of dependency on remittances from migrant workers, mainly from men going to Russia (a mind-boggling 47% of GDP in 2012, according to the World Bank’s excellent briefing). On Tuesday, the government reported a further 12% increase in remittances for 2013, bringing them to $4.2bn/49% of GDP.

Oddly, the villages we visited down South were full of men, hanging around. They were back from Russia for a couple of months, presumably because the Russian winter stops construction work. The rest of the year the villages are almost entirely made up of women, kids and ‘old people’ (over 45, ouch). The fruits of their labour are evident in nice new homes springing up at intervals in the villages.

According to the villagers, migration’s impact is mixed: ‘You hear good and bad stories all the time. Some men forget their families, women are abandoned. But others come back with money, build houses, send money – it’s good. You learn Russian, new skills.’

‘You are treated badly by the Russians, even by Tajiks who are doing well. You live with a lot of people all in one room. You don’t speak Russian so you don’t understand orders and make mistakes. I wasn’t paid for 2 months, then gave up and came home.’

What was most striking, at least for me, is that the NGOs and aid donors I talked to were hardly working on migration as a development issue. So half the economy is somehow not of interest? Some research issues that emerged:

  • Organization of migrants in Russia. Do migrants organize in any way – networks of people from the same village? Social media?
  • Transmission and management of remittances. How much of the few hundred dollars a typical migrant sends home every month flows through formal money transfer operators? What other channels are used?
  • Who decides how the money is spent – the men in Russia? The women back home? Other?

Answering these sorts of questions would be a first step to thinking how that huge flow of cash should/could be harnessed better for Tajik migrantssocial investment and poverty reduction. Eg what about donors offering to match remittances flowing into water investment, along the lines of Mexico’s 3×1 programme? If men are taking the decisions, why not get them together in December/January, when they are back in their villages with time on their hands, and discuss how best to use remittances to improve life back home?

I’m not a migration buff, but I’m sure there are dozens of other possibilities from work in other countries – v odd that more of it is not happening in Tajikistan, at least as far as my brief trip suggested (although I did subsequently stumble across this small EU-funded project to promote migrant rights). Anyone got links to good experiences of NGOs working to improve the social impact of migration, either in Tajikistan or anywhere else?

Tomorrow, back to Tajikistan’s water sector, which gives a pretty perfect insight into its institutions, history etc etc, as well as some truly dire toilets.

Update: Interested in examples of INGO work (including Oxfam!) supporting communities who rely on seasonal migration and the remittances that come from that.

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11 Responses to “My first trip to Central Asia. First impressions of Tajikistan, world’s most remittance-dependent country (and a very big flagpole)”
  1. Daria

    Hi Duncan, great to read this! And really good point on migration. But what does Oxfam’s country team actually think about it?

    Talking from the Russia perspective, I think touching on the issue of migration from Central Asia is actually viewed as risky by way too many stakeholders here. Just an example, a good acquaintance of mine and Oxfam’s office in Russia is currently doing research on everyday lives of migrants from Central Asia in Moscow. But major local state-funded university which he’s affiliated with now actually refused to be associated with this project. Another example, Aga Khan foundation that is working in Russia with Central Asian migrants actually intentionally has no brand visibility at all.

  2. Daniela Lloyd-Williams

    Hi Duncan, great to read about Tajikistan on your blog. And yes the gap between WB etc. reports and the reality on the ground is huge. Makes you wonder if they ever get their shoes dirty (i.e. visit the villages).
    As for migrants, back in 2011/2012 the Russians (through Russkii Mir, Russian version of the British Council) piloted a programme to increase the skills of Tajik and Kyrgyz migrants before they moved to Russia. If I remember correctly this included not only language tuition but also practical/vocational skills. And some of the NGOs in Tajikistan had livelihood projects that specifically target the women who remained in the villages. Looking forward to hearing about my favourite project tomorrow.

  3. Shane

    The issue of remittances was discussed by many of the main donors in 2009:

    Many of the issues remain the same.

    However there is also evidence of internal migration as well due to external remittances, I cite the labouring population of the Ayni region travelling to Sughd for work. This is financed by remittances from Russia brought in by those living in Sughd, many of which undertake seasonal work migration as you mentioned in your article.

  4. Arthur van Diesen


    For an overview of the impact of migration on children in Tajikistan, see this UNICEF report: . It is a few years old, but the findings still hold. The report provides further insights on the mixed impact of labour migration. The biggest cause for concern are the children and women who are abandoned by a migrant labourer, for whom the impact is very negative indeed.

    Arthur van Diesen, Deputy Representative, UNICEF Tajikistan

  5. Patti Petesch

    Hi Duncan, I’ve got some new qual work in the region coming out soon, and your message of frustration and anxiety along with a lot of poverty reduction resonates exactly with what I found. On migration, if Oxfam’s library happens to have the first volume of Moving Out of Poverty (or I think the chapters are online), Tony Hall and Sandy Davis each have useful chapters at the end about migration, mostly looking at Mexico and Central America to the U.S. The Davis chapter details the valuable work of Hometown Associations across the U.S. And Daniela is right — there are still not many incentives in the WB for staff to get their shoes dirty. But there is an uptick of qual (so at least researchers for hire can get their shoes dirty!) — including a lot in the Europe and Central Asia region. Whether it makes a difference, though, is harder to say. I was recently in a review of some excellent qual work at the WB where most reviewers went to great lengths to stress the need for stronger policy conclusions. We reviewers were disregarded in that case; but I can also point to a few more hopeful efforts. Patti

  6. Mtega

    From what I recall of James Ferguson’s classic anthropologist’s take on development, “Anti-politics machine”, the World Bank completely failed to take account of similarly high seasonal migration rates in Lesotho in the 1970s/80s. It didn’t fit into their frame of thinking, so migration was sidelined, despite its major effect on economics, politics, livelihoods, health, education, etc. etc.

    But I don’t think there was a big flagpole in Lesotho.

  7. Nicholas Colloff

    It would be interesting to know how the figures for Tajik remittances are come by as I expect a significant proportion are ‘informal’ -wedges of cash in one’s socks etc – rather than through formal or semi-formal remittance agents.

    In the 90s, when we thought of looking at the question of Central Asian migration (from a Russia perspective) (a) it was difficult to find Russia based organisations who were willing or interested to work on this and (b) there was no donor money to support it.

  8. Jessica Pickett

    Anecdotally, a large proportion of the remittances are actually managed by the local imams, rather than either the migrating men or their wives (or mothers) back home. Which raises a whole host of other questions around the cultural impact in terms of gender and religion.