In the wake of last month’s meeting by U.S. President Joe Biden with the five leaders of Central Asia, under the flag of the C5+1, USAID Administrator Samantha Power headed to Samarkand this week for the first C5+1 Regional Connectivity Ministerial.
Two headline items were the announcement of an additional $14.3 million in regional programing, plus $18.7 million to boost collaboration in global health, governance, education, and economic growth in Uzbekistan, specifically. These sums build on other U.S. commitments to the region, and underscore Washington’s increased focus on Central Asia – a critical region on the periphery of two geopolitical hot spots: Russia and China.
In addition to Power, the meeting was attended by Uzbekistan’s Minister of Investment, Industry and Trade Laziz Kudratov; Kazakhstan’s Minister of Trade and Integration Arman Shakkaliev; Kyrgyzstan’s Deputy Minister of Economy and Commerce Chingiz Mekeshov; Tajikistan’s Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Trade Akhliddin Nuriddinzoda; and Turkmenistan’s Deputy Minister of Trade and Foreign Economic Relations Kerimberdi Kurbanov, as well as other representatives of USAID, and the various relevant ministries and departments of the Central Asian countries.
The $18.7 million in newly announced funds directed at Uzbekistan, to be routed through USAID, includes four specific efforts: $3.2 million for a five-year initiative to support the battle against tuberculosis; $4 million aimed at applying best practices and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to boost resilience against future heath emergencies; $3.5 million targeted at important sectors in the Uzbek economic such as tourism, information and communications technology (ICT), and the green economy; and finally $3.5 million for “a new local governance program to strengthen regional and local government in Uzbekistan so that they are more responsive, participatory, and accountable when providing public services to the Uzbek people.”
Power also announced an initial-year investment of $4.5 million for a new educational initiative aimed at helping “improve the quality of instruction, materials, and support” for Uzbek children. USAID has previously partnered with the Ministry of Preschool and School Education and aims to build on the more than $40 million invested by USAID to support educational opportunities in Uzbekistan since 2019.
For the region writ large, Power announced three specific USAID efforts. The bulk of the new funding is $10.8 million “to match private investments with grants for up to 100 micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs).” The program is expected to focus on startups, marginalized communities, and sectors like ICT and the green economy; it is hoped to “create and improve jobs for 8,000 Central Asians.” Power also announced a new $1.5 million initiative to work with regional partners to “improve the quality of information online and in the media, and give citizens the skills to detect and combat misinformation.” Finally, an additional $2 million will be directed to increase private-sector investments and “mobilize climate financing to expand renewable energy.”
In her opening remarks at the ministerial, Power leaned heavily into Central Asia’s potential, drawing as many do on the region’s history. “Throughout history, right from the time of the Silk Road, this region has shown us how trade, and the human connections fostered by trade, drives transformative progress. You have an opportunity to do the same today,” she said. Power underscored the connection between U.S. aims to “strengthen the sovereignty, resilience, and prosperity” of Central Asia and reforms programs across the region.
Power highlighted several areas where regional governments have enacted reforms – to attract investment, to share energy and water, to recognize “the value of working with civil society partners,” to eliminate child and forced labor, and to “promote accountability of leaders to their people.” However, it’s important to note that efforts in these realms have either been uneven across the region or at this moment are in a backslide.
Uzbekistan, for example, has made progress in eliminating forced labor from the cotton industry, particularly by eliminating state quotas, but it has failed to do the same in the silk industry, according to human rights groups. Turkmenistan continues to mobilize state workers, such as teachers and doctors, to pick cotton.
When it comes to civil society, Kyrgyzstan’s flirtation and possible pending adoption of a new law introducing criminal liabilities for NGOs that receive foreign funding and fail to register as “foreign representatives” specifically devalues the work of civil society. The United Nations’ representative in the Kyrgyz Republic, Antje Grawe, noted that NGOs play a significant role as partners to the U.N. and other development actors – like USAID – in reaching rural communities and vulnerable populations.
And across the region, holding leaders to account remains difficult, if not impossible. None of the recent regional elections has been judged “free and fair” by reputable international observers. Across the region, opposition parties and politicians continue to face immense roadblocks to fully and freely participating in the political arenas of each country.
But even with this reality in mind, it’s notable that the United States has identified pathways for partnership.
At a press conference following the ministerial, Power was asked if – in the context of both the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the latest resumption of conflict in Gaza – whether the United States would “require” Uzbekistan to pick a side. In responding, Power outlined the U.S. position on the Israel-Gaza conflict and the war in Ukraine and then said, “Every sovereign country will make its own decisions about how it balances, for example, its geography, its history, its values, its self interest.” She said that the U.S. would require nothing, but would “advocate for the upholding of the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and international humanitarian law.” Tellingly, in asking the question the journalist noted that the Central Asian governments had not yet clarified their own positions on the Gaza war.
It’s not clear from present reporting and available press releases whether the representatives from the five Central Asian governments took questions from journalists, but maybe some of the new funds will go to media training for ministers.