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Kyrgyzstan: A confluence of crisis

Kyrgyzstan, June 16, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Colin Spurway/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps has working in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan since 1994, and is now helping its children and families weather severe food insecurity. Photo: Colin Spurway/Mercy Corps

The paradox of development is when our work meets a need, but that need has arisen from an unforeseen event or conditions.

In Kyrgyzstan, Mercy Corps recently began a food distribution program in coordination with the World Food Program (WFP) — the first such program in more than ten years in this former Soviet republic. With generous funding from USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, we're currently reaching over 40,000 of the most vulnerable, isolated and food-insecure people across the country.

In many ways, it's sad that the food insecurity situation in Kyrgyzstan has worsened to such a degree that, in the last few years, the United Nations would call for a flash appeal that would be worthy of disaster assistance from the U.S. government. After all, the country was once a small speck of hope for at least quasi-democracy and held potential for an economic system resembling a market economy. But last fall, a WFP food security assessment revealed that 36 percent of households in Kyrgyzstan — more than 1.9 million people — are food insecure. Furthermore, at least 55 percent of children in food-insecure households showed stunting (compared with 52 percent in Afghanistan) and 30 percent of the entire country's children overall are stunted.

But why?

The soaring cost of oil on the world market in recent years led to price increases in basic food items and household goods that have yet to stabilize — the price of flour, for example, skyrocketed 89 percent. Gas and diesel have increased by 42 percent.

Recent environmental shocks have also taken their toll on this already-harsh landscape. The worst winter in 40 years struck Central Asia in early 2008, and drought led to lower yields later that year. Now, the manmade disaster of the global economic crisis is beginning to take its toll on a country where 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Kyrgyzstan exports an estimated 800,000 migrant laborers abroad to countries where its young men can find work, primarily Russia. The remittances they send home account for a staggering 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product — although, unofficially, it is likely a much higher portion.

Now, with the economic crisis and the drop in oil prices, Russia’s economy has slowed to a standstill, which means that the primary industry in which Kyrgyz migrant laborers have worked — construction — is frozen. Not only are the men unable to work and send home the remittances upon which their families relied for so many years, they now face the prospect of returning to a homeland that provides them with no employment, no income and the stares of countrymen that imply their presence and lack of employment are a burden on society.

The point is this: the sudden shock and lingering turmoil of the global economic crisis has further exacerbated the food security crisis in the country and deepened the needs of the families we serve. Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come.