Poverty, Children and Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Some Reflections from the Field

By Howell, Jude | Journal of International Affairs, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Poverty, Children and Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Some Reflections from the Field


Howell, Jude, Journal of International Affairs


Compared with other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan, from an early stage, seemed to embrace most openly the recommendations of multilateral institutions to liberalize its economy, promote privatization and move from a planned to a market economy. Heavily dependent in the past on the Soviet Union market for exports and for its purchases of capital inputs, Kyrgyzstan embarked upon a fundamental restructuring of its economy. By 1995 it was one of the few countries in the region enjoying a positive growth rate, albeit equal only to 1 percent. Yet, despite this improvement in macroeconomic performance, the process of transition has taken a heavy toll on production, trade and social welfare provision, leading to declining standards of living and to new forms of poverty.

This article considers the effects of the transition to a market economy on children in Kyrgyzstan. In doing so, the article seeks to counterbalance the tendency for analyses of transition to focus both on the aggregate (at the expense of particular groups such as children, women, farmers or workers) and on the macroeconomic level (thus neglecting the local). It thus attempts not only to draw attention to specific effects on children, who tend to be underrepresented in the literature on transition, but also on the regional diversity of such effects.(1)

The article begins by providing an overview of the economic changes in Kyrgyzstan since it gained political independence in 1991. The impact of the crisis is then explored in three different economic contexts, namely the urban, the agricultural and the agro-pastoral. The next section focuses on the impact of transition on children in poor households, drawing attention not only to aspects of health and education, but also to the psychological consequences of rapid impoverishment.

This article is based on secondary sources as well as fieldwork carried out in the two southern regions of Osh and Djalalabad in Kyrgyzstan in the autumn of 1994.(2) In order to capture the regional variation in the effects of transition on children, the fieldwork was located in agro-pastoral, agricultural and urban areas.(3) Further insights were gleaned through interviews with local government officials, representatives of nongovernmental organizations and village leaders. In order to capture children's perceptions of the crisis, children in village schools were asked to write an account of their daily lives.(4)

BACKGROUND TO TRANSITION

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 marked a watershed in the history of the Central Asian republics.(5) It not only paved the way for long-awaited independence but also undermined the fragile basis of their economies. As former Leninist parties were replaced by purportedly more democratic organizations in Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan, the ability of new leaders to steer a course through the crisis differed considerably. As inter-republic trade collapsed and numerous subsidies and transfers from Moscow to the Central Asian states abruptly ended, industrial output and GDP growth rates plummeted, in turn affecting government revenue and expenditure.

The Kyrgyz economy suffered a sharp fall in production, as factories could no longer secure inputs and find markets for their products. Between 1992 and 1993, gross domestic product fell by 16.4 percent.(6) In 1995 output was still 45 percent below its 1991 level.(7) As enterprises began to incur losses and reduce or stop production, working hours were shortened and workers sent home on unpaid leave. By the end of June 1993, 100,000 workers had been affected in this way.(8) In the worst instances, enterprises were forced to lay off employees. In the first six months of 1994, 12 percent of industrial enterprises stopped production and 19,000 people were laid off, more than twice the number in the previous year.(9)

This breakdown of the economy, along with price liberalization and high inflation, resulted in a decline in living standards.

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