Central Asia Governments to adopt evidence-based processes for economic growth

Date: 18 May 2013

Times of Central Asia
18 May 2013
By Bohdan Krawchenko


BISHKEK (TCA) - Central Asia is a region where the legacy of the Soviet period weighs far more heavily than elsewhere in the post-Communist world. We have no neighbors who can serve as examples of liberal democracy.

There is no EU accession process or aspirations, and thus no EU membership-driven imperative to reform. The drive to reform will have to be internally driven, and the impetus most likely will be successive crises that authorities are unable to resolve without changing paradigms. Unless a process is in place, it will be virtually impossible for civil society in our region to engage in policy work and to find points of entry to influence policy.

A bridge between power and knowledge has to be created. Think tanks are the main bridge between power and knowledge. Public policy, at its most basic, is all about the application of knowledge and intellect to public problems. It is concerned with the systematic evaluation of alternative means of achieving social goals. Policy analysis is not political marketing, because it is based on rigorous analysis. Neither is it academic research, since it is concerned with making practical recommendations.

Policymaking presupposes that there is a policy process. Under Communism, there was no policy process, because all decisions were made in the corridors of central committees. It was a closed system of hierarchical management, where planning was a widespread social game. Its administrative machinery had none of the characteristics one associates with a classical bureaucratic organization: written communication, promotion and selection based on technical merit, and a system of accountability. The real heritage of Communism was a chaotic free-for-all where bureaucrats responded to pressure from top leaders, where the distinction between public and private spheres was blurred, where the personal preferences of leaders were the key criteria in making decisions, and there were no systems in place to carefully analyze outcomes.

After 1991, the countries of Central Asia accomplished three things: privatization, liberalization, and macroeconomic stabilization. This was completed by and large by 1998. What’s characteristic about these achievements is that they can be accomplished with very few administrative staff, and that these problems were not analytically complex and required a minimum of procedures. For example, macroeconomic stabilization could be done by three people: the head of a central bank, a minister of finance, and the political support of a president or prime minister.

But these systems have not been capable of dealing with a single major issue in society, such as reform of social welfare, education, the creation of an incentives system for economic growth, or the elimination of intolerable levels of poverty. The e imperative for Central Asia was and Is economic growth.

In 2009, the gross national income per capita in purchasing power parity for Tajikistan was $1,950. That is on par with Senegal. In Kyrgyzstan, it was $2,200, roughly the same as the Republic of Congo, while Kazakhstan, with its hydrocarbon and mineral wealth, is now a lower middle-income country with $5,840 per capita. This is less than Tunisia with $7,820.

But Central Asia is not the Third World, because it has human endowments. Kyrgyzstan’s tertiary enrollment rate – the number of people going to university – is 52%, higher than Austria’s. The challenge is to apply those human endowments to spur economic development.

The command system, inherited from the Soviet era, is not suited to deal with these difficult and pressing issues. One very important reason for this is that today’s socioeconomic problems are very complex. If someone thinks it is easy to bring social welfare into a country, they are mistaken. Moreover, these policies are very difficult to implement and require a huge number of trained civil servants to administer.

Progress on these pressing issues can only be made if public policy becomes a paradigm in the work of government. Opening the doors of policymaking is precisely what is needed. Even modest steps at local levels would help. The recent introduction in Kyrgyzstan of citizen supervisory councils offers considerable promise. At the very least, citizens are entitled to contribute to intelligent decision-making.

Unfortunately, governments in our region can be very decisive without being terribly intelligent. The very nature of intelligent and accountable government in a democracy demands decision-making that is guided by the best evidence available. These policies should operate within a framework that is understandable by the population and becomes the subject of scrutiny and debate.

A public policy approach to government decision-making therefore means many things. It means that there are analytical units in government that are engaged in research, analysis and evaluation when dealing with issues. No government in this region engages in evidence-based policies, first of all because they don’t gather evidence, and secondly, because they don’t have a staff who knows how to make that kind of analysis. So, for example, they move from one decision on health to another decision on health without any evidence. In fact, people in government can’t tell you what the process is. Many times you ask people, “How was this decision arrived at?” and they don’t know.

The public policy paradigm is also about a new way of working in government. It involves a process with defined cycles of policy development, such as agenda-setting, formulation, adoption, implementation, and assessment. 

Having a process is also a good way of working out competing interests and building coalitions in support of policy. Having an interest and lobbying for your interest is a normal part of how democracy works. But in our region, interests are individually lobbied for behind closed doors, and if that doesn’t work they take more violent forms. The recognition of the legitimacy of interests and providing a process for their reconciliation is one of the more important tasks facing the region’s politics. 

* Bohdan Krawchenko is Director General of the University of Central Asia. This article is based on a speech he delivered at “Opening the Doors of Policymaking in the South Caucasus and Central Asia,” at an Open Society conference held in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic.

# Published in Times of Central Asia.