Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked and mountainous country located in Central Asia. It is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. Soviet power was initially established in 1919 and independence declared in 1991. Political stability did not come with independence, however, and civil unrest and inter ethnic tension continued over the following years. Presidential elections took place in November 2011, following a revolution in April 2010, when the then president was overthrown. The coutnry is now officially a democratic parliamentary republic.
Ethnic tension between Uzbeks and Kyrgz flared in the southern region of Kyrgyzstan in 1990 and triggered the Osh riots resulting in significant loss of life. Inter ethnic conflict continues to divide communities, particularly in the southern border regions and main cities. Kyrgz make up 69% of the population (a significant increase since independence) and Uzbeks 14.5%. Russians comprise 9% (a significant decrease since independence) with other minority groups including Tajiks, Tatars, Uyghurs, Ukranians and Kazakhs also present, although also now fewer in number. The Kyrgyz have historically been semi-nomadic herders and they continue to practice this lifestyle seasonally.
Background to Youth Bank in Kyrgyzstan
YouthBank was introduced to Kyrgyzstan in 2009 at a three day seminar organised by the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia (EFCA) in Osh. It was adopted by the EFCA as an approach to youth and community development as part of a programme (“Strengthening the Potential of Local Authorities and the Non-Governmental Sector in Consolidating Good Neighborly Relations’) designed to address and reduce the impact of conflict for border communities living in South Kyrgyzstan. The programme was supported by the European Union and USAID. The seminar in Osh was led by the trainers from the Community Foundation Northern Ireland who trained 72 young people between the ages of 16 and 35 years with the intention of setting up five YouthBanks within their own communities. The young adults were selected for training on the basis of their leadership potential, initiative and their commitment to community development. The promotion of local partnerships between business, local authorities and the young people was a key and aspirational element of the initiative.
The implementation of YouthBank in Kyrgyzstan has been shaped by the nature of the largely isolated rural areas into which it was introduced. High levels of unemployment, lack of sports and leisure opportunities, alcohol, drugs, violence and ethnic tension were all issues affecting young people in these communities. YouthBank was introduced as a way to empower and involve young people in constructive and positive ways within their communities. In this it was very successful. As a vehicle of change it placed young people on a platform where they were seen by the local authorities and the community at large as a resource, contributing to their community, and having a positive role to play. The fact that YouthBank has allowed young people to address real need within their own areas strengthened their mandate, and encouraged the local community and investors to support the work. Anecdotal evidence from these communities suggest that adults and local government representatives have changed their attitude towards young people, seeing them in a more positive light and regarding them as a resource rather than a problem. The YouthBank initiative has generated a spirit of community activism in places where little existed beforehand. For example, projects which have involved improving facilities and resources for schools have encouraged local businesses and adults to get involved and provide support. The soviet history of Kyrgyzstan has emphasized the generational gap between old and young in the country. Many adults are of the mind that life was better under the Soviet regime, and that problems and trouble they link with young people is part of post Soviet society. YouthBank gives young people the opportunity to challenge these perceptions.
Making a Difference
Addressing ethnic tension and intercommunity conflict has been an underlying objective to YouthBank in Kyrgyzstan. Ethnic tension between the majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks erupted in violence in June 2010. Thousands fled their homes in and around Osh and Jalalabad, thousands were injured and hundreds killed. YouthBank was introduced to Osh following this ethnic violence. Community boundaries were less pronounced in the city compared to rural areas, and Uzbek and Kyrgyz young people were recruited to work together. These young people did research in their area to find out what the community priorities were, and how they might address them. As a result they refurbished a children’s playground, built a bus shelter and installed rubbish bins in the street. All of this happened in a climate of extreme distrust and fear, and all met direct needs and wishes of local people.
A dance club in Kara-Suu, in Osh province is another example of how YouthBank has been a catalyst for youth-led community development and reconciliation. It closed following inter-ethnic tension and violence in 2010, and relationships between the two communities suffered. However, YouthBank encouraged the club to reopen in February 2011 and relationships between children and parents have flourished within this creative space. The dance club is thriving long after EFCA YouthBank funding has ended, and the young YouthBankers who were instrumental in its foundation are enthusiastic both about what they have achieved personally, and what has been achieved at a community level in terms of inter-ethnic relationships and mutual respect.
YouthBank has also been active in promoting relationships across the Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan border. Young people with little to do and few opportunities have been attracted by charismatic religious leaders and the rise of Islamic extremism in this area. YouthBank has empowered young people to initiate alternative activities and provide their peers with diversionary and positive experiences.
Growth and Future
Ethnic Reconciliation and Community Development will be at the core of YouthBank work in 2012. It is hoped that funding support from the Ministry of Youth will increase and that a corporate donor will be found to provide unrestricted funding for the long term sustainability of the initiative