Education as an alternative to radicalism
By the looks of its clean, modern capital of Dushanbe, one would never suspect that Tajikistan is the poorest nation in former Soviet Central Asia, with an average monthly salary of about $150.
The nation depends heavily on remittances sent home from Tajiks working in Russia, money that is at threat of drying up due to a struggling Russian economy caused by the collapse of oil prices and western sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Nearly one million Tajik men, about half of Tajikstan’s working-age population, live abroad, mostly in Russia. Called the “missing men” of Tajikstan, many are now returning home due to the faltering Russian economy. Tajiks and other working-age men from Central Asian countries including Kyrgyzstan are said to be the invisible victims of Russia’s economic crisis.
Returning migrant workers are a grave concern to officials like Shodikhon Jamshedov, the governor of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province, on the Afghanistan border. “The creation of one million jobs in Tajikistan will be impossible,” he recently told a visiting group of Canadians. Jamshedov made a point of reminding them that Canada supports sanctions against Russia noting, “A weak Russia is very bad for this part of the world.”
The implication was clear — that the unintended consequences of Western sanctions against Russia could be unemployment and poverty in Central Asia that may give rise to radical extremism. Without no jobs, few alternatives, lack of faith in government and the increasing influence of conservatism, young men and women can become ripe targets for recruitment by radical and terrorist elements.
Tajikistan, on the northern border of Afghanistan, is worried about the spread of radical fundamentalism and, like neighbouring Kyrgyzstan to the north, is cracking down on any sign of potential Islamic extremism. Tajikistan has reportedly resorted to forced beard shavings and other restrictions on Islamic dress. Kyrgyzstan is also clamping down on Islamic extremism.
The Canadian delegation that met with Jamshedov represents 125 private Canadian donors, most from Calgary, who have raised money to support an Aga Khan Development Network education initiative. Although that project is in East Africa the Calgary group, led by prominent petroleum industry executive and philanthropist Jim Gray, regularly tours Aga Khan projects in the developing world. I have joined the on three occasions, including on their most recent trip to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and India.
Gray and others in group are convinced that the work of Aga Khan network, with its vast development activities in Africa, India, Central and South Asia and the Middle East, is vital to the long-term health, safety and economic development of some of the most struggling regions of the world. The organization’s myriad agencies operate in the fields of environment, health, education, architecture, culture, microfinance, rural development, disaster reduction, the promotion of private-sector enterprise and the revitalization of historic cities. Education is the Calgary’s groups main focus.
In Khorog, Tajikistan and Naryn, Kyrgyzstan the Calgary donor group toured sites for the Aga Khan’s nascent University of Central Asia (UCA). The two campuses are being built in remote, high-mountain areas at historic crossroads along the legendary Silk Road. A third campus is also being built in Kazakhstan. Programs of study include undergraduate degrees in economics, environmental science, engineering, computer science, business, communications and two masters degrees in economic development and public policy and administration. The university also runs research programs in mountain societies, public policy and cultural heritage, as well as a school for professional and continuing education.
Given the high quality standards of the Aga Khan organization (its university in Karachi is ranked by QS agency as near the top 100 in Asia), its three campuses of the University of Central Asia will undoubtedly improve higher education in Central Asia including Tajikistan — which according to a report by the European Commission faces “numerous problems” including “the training of teaching of academic staff” — and will offer long-term hope to a nation struggling with collapse of remittances from migrant workers abroad.
“It is a wonderful organization,” Gray says of the Aga Khan network, which pursues its development goals without respect to politics, religion, race or gender. “It is a leader and a symbol with respect with what needs to be done in this world. There is no future without hope and to me the AKDN epitomizes the word hope.”
In Tajikistan, the Calgary group met with Aga Khan teacher educators who are training other teachers including those in cross-border regions of Afghanistan, where teacher qualifications are weak. The University of Central Asia’s School of Professional and Continuing Education (SPCE) has to date trained more than 1,500 Afghans at four satellite learning centres in Afghanistan. In the next five years, Aga Khan outreach and learning centres in Afghanistan will reach an estimated 11,000 developing Afghan teachers.