DUSHANBE, Tajikistan–Unless it starts with ‘Afghani,’ Americans and Europeans are often ignorant to the ‘stans.’ As a landlocked lump of arid mountains in central Asia, the seven ‘stans’ are viewed, if they are noticed at all, as places that humans should probably not have bothered settling into at all. And as the smallest of them all, Tajikistan does not typically merit a footnote at the end of the nothingness. Though Tajikistan will never support a population like India or claim the beauty of France, considering its location and its abundance of natural resources, it seems that with a little attention, the nearly 200,000 people living in poverty there could be given sustainable jobs and a place of prominence within Euro-Asian geopolitics.
Tajikistan occupies 20% of the Aral Sea Basin, but gives off 90% of the total runoff and contains a total of 51.2 billion cubic meters of fresh water on average. An additional 500 cubic kilometers of water is contained in glaciers and snow. This abundance of water means that 98% of the country’s energy is hydroelectric. The country is also rich in minerals, metals, and fuels; these include gold, molybdenum, fluorite, gas, and gems. Currently, the 5.5% of the country that is arable is used to grow vegetables and cotton. Privatization after the USSR collapsed has hurt many of Tajikistan’s industries.
But, with corruption rampant in the government, nationalized businesses are equally unappealing to foreign capital. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) states that most business in Tajikistan is family-owned, with no large corporations, and only a few mid-level companies. While this is not necessarily economically damning, it does once again lead to Tajikistan’s big problem: zero visibility in the international forums.
Unlike in South Asia and Central America, there are few NGOs or funds to help people take the first steps. Microfinancing opportunities are rare, and it is difficult for people in the country – which has an Internet penetration rate of only 9% – to learn about opportunities even if they are within traveling distance. Traveling distances themselves are severely limited by the lack or decrepitude of roads and vehicles; the country in many ways remains fragmented by its rugged landscape.
With attention from energetic NGOs of all sizes, Tajikistan could begin to combat its many political, social, and infrastructural problems by capitalizing on its many natural endowments – selling clean energy to the region and the world; refining its mining operations to extract minerals with less pollution; reclaiming land, which has been salinated to toxicity. Its many lakes, rivers, and mountains could even make Tajikistan a hub for tourism in the region, if the government could clean up and work through the echoes of the civil wars, consequent of Soviet withdrawal.
The landlocked country truly has many problems. But if this article accomplishes anything, it is hopefully to put Tajikistan in people’s minds as a place of hope, waiting for the opportunity to grow. The million Tajiks who work in Russia every year, supporting families back home, and the hundreds of thousands of employed, but still poverty-stricken, people are no less deserving than those in Honduras, or the DRC, or anywhere.
– Alex Pusateri