By Catherine Owen
Its half past eight on a hot August evening, and we are seated cross-legged on cushions around a low, makeshift table in the yard of a household in the Ak-Orgo novostroika (new-build) settlement on the outskirts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Portly, head-scarfed women dressed in long, colourful skirts with mouths glittering gold bring platters of steaming stew, bowls piled high with home-baked bread and side plates of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden. A gaggle of half-naked children run rings around the table squirting each other – and occasionally us – with water pistols. It feels like a celebration, but the purpose of the meeting is a serious one: after dinner, the monthly finance meeting of the self-help group Nooruz (which shares its birthday with the eponymous Kyrgyz spring celebration) will take place. “We can’t talk about our problems on an empty stomach,” grins Abdylas, self-help group support worker, trainer, and member of Kyrgyz NGO Erayim.
This article tells the stories of settlement residents in Kyrgyzstan who are practicing mutual aid, do-it-yourself culture, leaderless organisation and a vehement distrust of the state – and have transformed their neighbourhoods and helped to bring one another out of poverty. In providing small loans and moral support they have started local businesses, organised within their communities to improve shared amenities, lobbied the authorities to supply basic services, arranged small-scale cultural events and excursions for themselves and their children and provided emotional support to one another in times of hardship. Membership in self-help groups has turned previously passive, alienated people into a powerful participatory force for social change in Ak-Orgo and beyond. And Nooruz is just one of Kyrgyzstan’s 450 self-help groups.
After just twenty years of independence since its secession from the Soviet Union, as well as two revolutions, and bouts of ethnic violence in the southern regions bordering with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz state infrastructure is still fragile and easily corruptible. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index rated Kyrgyzstan 164th out of 178 countries in 2010 and levels of public trust in state institutions are correspondingly low. After the political shake-ups in 2005 and 2010, many average people regard the elite with cynicism and suspicion, believing them incapable of creating a secure Kyrgyzstan. Despite a recent increase in public sector wages, the culture of bribery and informal negotiations outside of official channels still prevails.
Poverty in Kyrgyzstan is also wide-spread. In a country in which more than one third of the population live in desperate material and social privation, the average wage for professional work, such as teaching, is less than $60 a month. In the novostroike, there is frequently no piped water or gas, and the roads are often little more than dirt tracks on which it is impossible to drive more than a few miles per hour. In such villages and settlements it is normal for girls to leave school at eleven with only the seeds of literacy. It is not a surprise, then, that the UN’s Human Development Index, a cumulative calculation of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living, has placed Kyrgyzstan 120th out of 191 countries. In this scarce environment, self-help groups have given their members both the impetus and the capital to make their own way out of poverty.
The women around the table tell me, “The Soviet system made people lazy. They knew that they would not have to do anything and the state would still provide for them. Under communism, education and child-care were free; we didn’t need to try in order to receive the basic necessities of life. Now that system is gone and nothing is free, but the old Soviet attitude remains. Today, many Kyrgyz people don’t know how to help themselves, and as a result they have fallen into poverty.” One of the goals of the self-help group is to try to change this mentality, to educate people to be active. Here, people are learning that democracy can mean something else entirely than the Soviet model of zero participation or the tick in the box offered by the current government. “Democracy means doing, contributing,” says Abdylas, “For democracy to happen, the people must be active. This is the most important lesson of the self-help group.”
The idea for the self-help groups was conceived at the turn of the millennium by NGO Erayim. It was initially based on the ideas of Bangladeshi economist Mohammed Yunus, founder of micro-finance initiative, Grameen Bank. In 2000, six members of Erayim travelled to Indonesia and Bangladesh, and visited various projects launched through the principle of micro-finance, in which groups of poverty-stricken women, who would normally have no chance of receiving a bank loan, would borrow small sums of money from a district bank to start a local business, such as community child-minding, cooking lunch for workers on building sites, and making traditional garments to sell in tourist markets. With the proceeds from their enterprises, the women pay back the loan to the bank in small instalments at about half the rate of interest that regular banks would charge. The Kyrgyz visitors were impressed by the ways in which the poorest members of Bangladeshi society had been empowered to lift themselves out of poverty, but felt that the concept could go much further. After all, of the problems Erayim was seeking to address in Kyrgyz society, material hardship was just one.
Back in Bishkek, the members of Erayim formulated their own variant of Yunus’s ideas, taking into account the customary Kyrgyz practice of ashar, that is, mutual assistance at the local level to people in need. As early as the 18th Century, when Kyrgyz semi-nomadic tribes were raising horses, cattle and yaks in the mountain valleys of Tian-Shan and Pamiro-Alai, they have been collectively fund-raising for their kinfolk who had lost a bread-winner, building houses for the elderly, or helping community members in constructing or extending their home. And all free of charge. However, from the beginning of the 20th Century, capitalism, urbanisation, and the Soviet occupation began to destroy the resilient communities that had built up on the mountainside over centuries, and the practice of ashar became a collective memory from a forgotten time. The colleagues at Erayim researched ashar, modified it for use in the 21stCentury, and made it the core principle of the Kyrgyz self-help group – and then disseminated the idea at training weekends across the country.
What exactly do the self-help groups do? Abdylas explains that there are four areas to their work: micro-finance, community work, lobbying and cultural activities. The financial sphere takes the ideas of Yunus as a starting point and expands them to enable borrowers to take control of their own terms and conditions. In Nooruz, the borrower is the banker! Every month, members pay a small subscription, the amount of which was decided collectively via a consensus discussion at the first meeting. Nooruz opted for just 100 som (about £1.30), but over the seven years of the group’s existence they have built up a bank of over 200,000 som (almost £3000). Nooruz members borrow regularly from the bank, from small amounts to help pay for a family birthday or to purchase a new television, to large amounts to finance the laying of water pipes or to fund a child’s university education. At the meeting I attended, all but two members were paying back loans of some description. The rate of interest is decided in a similar fashion to the subscription sum – Nooruz members are paying 1% interest on the loans they take from the collective kitty (a huge contrast to 20% interest paid on the Grameen Bank’s ‘income generating’ loans). When I asked why they need pay interest at all, an elderly woman in a turquoise headscarf replied, “How do you think we managed to raise so much money for our bank? 1% is a tiny amount – a real bank would be charging us 30% most probably. But this little contribution helps to expand our funds.”
With loans from the bank, the Nooruz members have managed to achieve great things: one member has opened a local apothecary (there is but one very small and poorly equipped hospital in the area, and no ambulance services), another has started a sewing collective together with several of the group’s daughters, another woman has built a public banya (washroom) with her husband, two members have opened local grocery shops, another has started a furniture repair business, another woman has trained up as an accountant, while the only male group member at the table has paid for his doctorate in physics. Nooruz laugh: “You see? We don’t need to go anywhere else now! We have places to go when we’re sick and hungry, when there’s a hole in our clothes and when our furniture collapses, when we need someone to do our sums for us and when we need a wash!”
Were they concerned about being locked forever into a culture of debt, as one of the frequent criticisms of the micro-finance concept goes? “No,” replied Abdylas. “You see, the borrower can decide together with the group how long she will take to pay back the loan – two months or two years, depending on the size of the loan and the situation of the borrower. Anyway, it is surely better to be paying small amounts back to the kitty every month and sending your child to university, than to be debt free, yet ignorant and penniless.” One of the many differences between Bangladeshi and Erayim’s micro-finance initiatives is that all decisions regarding the bank are made collectively by the borrowers themselves: in Kyrgyzstan, the service users are also the service providers. There are no third parties, and the bank itself belongs to its users. Thus, much of the very valid criticism hurled at the concept of microfinance in recent years does not apply.
The second sphere of the group’s activities is community work in the local area. The novostroike are woefully neglected by the government, and barely have any kind of public amenities. Aside from the poor roads, and the lack of healthcare, Ak-Orgo has no street lighting beyond one main road and no parks or public spaces. Ak-Orgo is the oldest of the post-communist settlements around the capital and what little money the government gives for regeneration of such districts now goes elsewhere. In Kalys-Ordo, a rudimentary novostroika built in 2005, houses consist of little more than mud shacks topped with corrugated iron, water is collected from a public pump, and electricity is just a dream for many of the residents. Yet the main road through the settlement is crowned with some of the smoothest tarmac in Bishkek.
Rectifying the lack of amenities in the novostroike seems like a gargantuan task, but Nooruz, as well as the other self-help groups, have taken matters into their own hands. Pooling know-how and man-power, Nooruz have laid gravel on their street, filling the pot-holes and levelling the road. They have constructed a couple of street-lights on wooden poles hammered into the ground. They have saved the disused plot of land at the end of their street from purchase by property developers, thanks to their constant barrage of letters to the local administration, and have turned it a playground for their children – and have built the rudimentary play equipment themselves. Democracy, after all, means doing.
The third area of activity is lobbying, that is, writing letters and collecting signatures to send to the local authorities regarding the lack of amenities, such as land for public use, piped water and gas, or rubbish collection. When I asked about the relationship between the self-help groups and the state, Abdylas replied, blasé, “Oh, they like us. It means that they have to do less work themselves!” Kyrgyzstan’s civil society has been the most visible and the most active of the Central Asian states since their independence: unlike other post-communist countries, such as Russia and Belarus, many NGOs are active in the political arena, and, despite bouts of repression, particularly under the Bakiyev regime (ousted in 2010) such organisations have enjoyed a significant amount of freedom and support from the government. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that the state is all too aware of how much organisations like Erayim and its self-help groups perform the tasks that it itself should be performing.
The fourth area of activity of the self-help groups is educational: members try to revive traditional Kyrgyz cultural practices, such as playing the komuz, the three-stringed Kyrgyz folk instrument, learning toguz korgool, a traditional Kyrgyz intellectual game, or making group excursions to sites of historic or cultural interest. After 70 years of occupation by the Soviet Union, in which Kyrgyz customs were often brutally supressed (as late as 1989, people were still being imprisoned for using the Kyrgyz language at official events), the revival of such customs is an important part of shaking off the Soviet torpor. “We only want to revive the good traditions. For example men and women should be equal,” explains Abdylas, alluding to the extremely patriarchal nature of traditional Kyrgyz tribal society, much of which still remains in the modern Kyrgyz family structure.
The revival of such traditions by the self-help groups should not be seen in tandem with the influential nationalist-populist currents in mainstream Kyrgyz politics that are frequently characterised by demands to instate Kyrgyz language as the sole language of official communication, thus disregarding the country’s colourful, multi-lingual, ethnic composition, or the recent masculinist moves to demolish a female statue of liberty in the centre of the city in favour of the erection of yet another edifice to the male folk hero, Manas. Rather, they should be understood as part of the same process of self-education which taught the women to record the finances and protocols of their groups. The rediscovery of folk traditions is not so much part of the so-called reawakening of a previously dormant ‘national consciousness’ than an attempt to do something constructive in a scarce environment with newly accessible knowledge.
Things are looking up for Kyrgyzstan. Six years ago, more than half the population was living in poverty; now that figure is less than a third. The revolution of 2010, although bloody, saw the advent of Rosa Otunbayeva to the premiership, Kyrgyzstan’s first female president, and an honest politician, herself with a background in NGO work. The most recent elections in October 2011, won by Almazbek Atambaeyev, were seen by the OSCE as making solid progress towards democracy. When I ask the group at the table whether they are hopeful about the future, the ‘yes’ is cacophonous! “We are laying the ground work for our children,” said one mother. “My son is growing up in Nooruz. He comes to every meeting and we are teaching him what democracy really means. How can we not be full of hope?”
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