Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous nation nestled in central Asia, is vulnerable to natural disasters, political instability, water scarcity and food shortages. When international development organizations were first welcomed into the newly-independent country in 1994, we were one of the first organizations to begin work there.
Today, a rise in poverty makes it challenging for families in Kyrgyzstan to get food and send their children to school. Malnutrition and food insecurity are prevalent, and limited job and economic opportunities keep people from prospering.
Over the past two decades, we’ve helped the families facing these issues grow more crops, build strong livelihoods, prepare healthy food and provide their children with an education.
Our vocational training programs have helped young people gain marketable skills and find jobs in their communities. And our microcredit initiative has become the country’s largest financial institution, Kompanion Financial Group, helping people across the region make investments to improve their homes and businesses.
In this month’s staff profile, meet Alexander Kirillov and Bakhtiyar Ergashev, who have been part of the effort from the beginning. Together, these 20-year veterans are leading the charge to reduce child hunger, enabling Kyrgyzstan’s youth to grow up healthy and successful.
Our roles with Mercy Corps: Alexander: I am the Food for Education (FFE) Program Director, responsible for the implementation of the program in Kyrgyzstan.
Bakhtiyar: And I am a regional manager of the FFE program. I am responsible for the successful implementation of the program in southern Kyrgyzstan.
The challenges here: Alexander: Over the past nine years, Kyrgyzstan has experienced two revolutions and an ethnic conflict that have made people more impoverished — the level of poverty here is currently about 37 percent.
The lack of work and economic insecurity have forced about 10 percent of the population, mostly young people, to migrate to more prosperous neighboring countries, mainly Russia and Kazakhstan, to search for work. Plus, there is a very high level of corruption, a poor healthcare situation and decreasing education levels.
Bakhtiyar: And agricultural production cutbacks and lower incomes have negatively affected food consumption of the overall population, which has had great impacts on child nutrition and health. Because of malnutrition and insufficient intake of essential foods, the prevalence of nutrient deficiencies and stunted growth in children here is high.
What we’re doing: Bakhtiyar: The Food for Education program aims to increase school attendance by improving learning environments, including school buildings and the nutritional value of meals offered. To accomplish this we provide in-need schools with supplementary food like flour, rice and peas; improve building infrastructure and equipment; and train school personnel and parents about healthy food preparation for their children.
Alexander: The program helped more than 400 schools solve the problem of food shortage last year.
Our backgrounds: Alexander: I was born and grew up in Osh, in the south of Kyrgyzstan. My family was small; my older brother and I were raised by my mother. I finished school, served in the army, then worked for 10 years in geological expedition. I joined Mercy Corps after short-term work with Save the Children, where I got my first experience with humanitarian work.
Bakhtiyar: And I am the fourth of five sons. After graduating I worked as a mechanical engineer at a textile factory for more than 10 years. I served in the Soviet Army in Minsk, and in 1994 I joined Mercy Corps, starting as a food program coordinator.
Why we love our jobs: Alexander: I enjoy seeing the results of our program and feeling my involvement in it. I enjoy seeing happy and smiling faces of children saying “salamatsyzby” (hello) in chorus when entering a classroom equipped with new furniture. It is nice to hear words of gratitude from people for helping them overcome their difficulties.
Bakhtiyar: After such a long time with Mercy Corps, I now find it difficult to imagine myself away from Mercy Corps and its team, my friends and like-minded people. My job allows me to be in harmony with my own ideas about conscience and decency. And, of course, the results of our work and the good feedback we regularly receive are good incentives to continue.
What we’ve achieved during these 20 years: Bakhtiyar: A significant achievement was the implementation of a women’s microcredit project, which was successfully transformed into a microcredit company. Now it is the largest microfinance company in Kyrgyzstan, Kompanion Financial Group.
I would also like to note our staff — together and each of them separately. Our field staff and drivers do their jobs every day despite bad road conditions, unheated rural hotel rooms, frequent ailments and having to be away from family and home-cooked meals. Thanks to their efforts, projects are implemented, food is delivered where it needs to go, and knowledge about healthy food preparation is shared.
Alexander: Our work inspires optimism and helps people overcome their difficulties and problems. Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen an important change occur in the people. They started believing that they can change the world for the better.
Hope for the future: Bakhtiyar: I like the educated and ambitious youth here. Through Mercy Corps and outside of work I often have to communicate with young people, and their education, tolerance and healthy desire to succeed in life give me hope that our society will again value such concepts as honor, decency and mutual respect.
Alexander: I, too, believe in a happy future for Kyrgyzstan. But first, the country needs political stability, and peace and harmony among all its ethnic groups. Then life will slowly start to improve.