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Tajik Poverty Trap

Tajikistan shows no sign of recovering from its devastating civil war
By Vladimir Davlatov

Three years after the end of their civil war, Tajiks have little to feel optimistic about. The destructive conflict left the economy in tatters. Around 80 to 90 per cent of the population of six million lives below the poverty line. And there are few signs that conditions will improve.


The Tajik civil war erupted in December of 1992, following a fierce power struggle between Islamic, pro-democratic Tajik opposition and the pro-communist, ex-Soviet elites. The latter claimed victory five years later, but at an enormous cost to the country. One hundred thousand died and 500,000 fled to neighbouring countries.


Tajikstan remains "one of the least developed countries in the world and the poorest country in the whole of the Central Asian region, where the domestic product per capita per year is only $215," says the UN in Dushanbe.


According to latest statistics, the average monthly working wage in Tajikistan is 14,424 roubles (approximately $8) - which means that most people can barely afford to feed themselves.


Worst hit are pensioners. They earn an average of just 3,000-4,000 roubles (only $2) a month - a sum that is impossible to live off. As a result, there's been a huge growth in flea-markets, where pensioners sell anything they can get their hands on to buy a loaf of bread or a bag of potatoes.


Pensioners, Lubov Sergeyevna and her husband, travel to flea-markets almost every day with their "goods." Their wares consist of rusted spare parts from cars, dented pots and chipped glass containers.


"We can't get by from day to day," said Lubov Sergeyevna. "Sometimes we aren't able to sell anything, sometimes we're lucky." Over the last few days they were lucky, selling a solitary spare part. It was enough for two trips to the food market and a short respite from hunger.


For those who have nothing of their own to sell, there is another means of eking out a living. They search the streets and dumpsters for plastic bottles to sell at the market. They're Antonina Gavrilovna's main source of income. It's a far cry from her years of dutiful service in a post-office. Every day, Antonina Gavrilovna scours the streets for bottles that she can sell wholesale at a local collection site. For every five or six bottles, she can buy herself a loaf of bread. That's considered a good day's work.


Other elderly and disabled people can only wait meekly at street corners and beg, hoping desperately for enough money to buy a crust of bread. During civic celebrations or visits by foreign dignitaries, police offers whisk the beggars away - fearful their plight might catch the eye of a critical foreign guest.


The dire economic situation is also slowly destroying the Tajik educational system. Many children abandon their studies to support their families. They wash cars, help carry goods, shine shoes, or take a multitude of other low-paying jobs. Higher education doesn't even cross their mind.


The government, unfortunately, is not in a position to provide support for its citizens. It has so far mainly focused on trying to establish economic and political stability. There simply isn't the money or resources needed to aid its impoverished citizens. Alas, growth has been slow. Big business is non-existent, and investors are few. For the time being at least, Tajikistan will continue to languish in poverty, with little hope for the immediate future.


At present, the only hope for Tajikistan's impoverished ranks lies in international organizations. Over the last few days, the UN in Dushanbe has secured 90,000 tons of goods worth $45 million to be distributed over the next two years. According to the press release, "this aid will be distributed amongst 575,000 people who are very much in need of produce support." The report doesn't mention the millions of other citizens in desperate need of aid.


Although the aid package seems impressive, little of it will reach those who need it most. There have been many documented cases of organisations responsible for distributing the goods selling them instead on the black market for personal gain. There's no end, it seems, to the dire plight of Tajikistan's impoverished citizens.


Vladimir Davlatov is a regular IWPR contributor


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