Development banks continue financing high-impact project despite the restricted civic space in Central Asia and South Caucasus
By Hayk Abrahamyan
“There is no independent civil society in our country, and the idea that communities can participate in decisions affecting their lives is something unimaginable. When we reached out to the bank representatives in our country [regarding the World Bank-funded COVID response project] they treated us as an annoying factor and would not answer our questions” — civil society partner in Turkmenistan
For years, the lack of opportunity to meaningfully participate in development processes has been a critical challenge for communities in the countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus. In the last decade, the political and economic liberalization trends in the region have been accompanied by the rise of investments from major development banks.
Despite “opening up” to international investment, development is regularly being planned and implemented without the meaningful participation of communities and civil society throughout the region. The information about proposed development projects is not accessible, as the banks do not disclose project information in a manner that is timely and accessible in local languages. In countries where the space for civil society to operate is largely restricted, it is risky to participate in consultations, ask questions and voice concerns about development processes. Notwithstanding their institutional policies espousing the importance of stakeholder engagement in their operations, the development banks operating in the region have failed to create an enabling environment for participation free from fear of reprisals.
In the years leading to the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society organizations in Central Asia and the South Caucasus have been fighting to keep the space for civic participation open amidst authoritarian tendencies. The Nations in Transit report by the Freedom House, which has been assessing the democracy status in Europe and Central Asia since 1995, constantly characterizes the majority of the countries in the region as consolidated or semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes.
Since the start of the global pandemic in 2020, the region has seen further restrictions on civic space. Many governments used the pandemic as a pretext to stifle critical voices of civic activists and opposition representatives. For instance, in Turkmenistan, where the existence of COVID-19 is still officially denied, the government persecuted healthcare workers and activists for uncovering the truth. Additionally, new legislative and policy measures were adopted in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to prevent the spreading of false information and inaccurate news. These restrictions were imposed in the name of preventing panic in the society, however, they undermined the work of the independent media and prevented critical discussions on social media. In Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, the governments used the opportunity to attack political opponents — notably, an opposition party was banned and a number of political activists were persecuted in Kazakhstan and several political opposition members were detained in Azerbaijan.
In sum, the restrictions imposed by the governments in the region made it even more difficult for the citizens and communities to not only voice their concerns about how the governments were handling the COVID pandemic, but also to participate in various decisions affecting their lives — including in development decisions.
The limitations posed by the pandemic itself further undermined the opportunity for communities to safely access information, express their opinions, and meaningfully participate and lead project processes in the region. The project documents were made available only online, consultation processes were disrupted, and communication with project implementers required additional resources.
The IFI response to COVID and funding amidst civic space restrictions
Since the beginning of the pandemic the Early Warning System has tracked 103 known COVID-related projects proposed by the development banks in the region with a collective investment of 7.9 billion USD. You can read more about what we’ve learned by tracking COVID-19 relief financing for two years.
In a region where serious gaps and challenges existed in employment, social support, education and healthcare sectors even before the pandemic, COVID especially hit the vulnerable and marginalized populations, including women, children, migrants, and informal workers. In spite of that, almost 45% of the development banks’ investments went to the recovery of the finance sector and MSMEs, while only 30% was directed to support the healthcare system and vulnerable households. Projects financed through financial intermediaries constitute 36% of the total number of projects.
Communities and civil society organizations have raised concerns about barriers to access to information and participation in COVID-response projects. In Armenia, a local health rights organization analyzing the international financial support to the Armenian government in response to the pandemic, has been struggling to find any accessible information about how the funding from the World Bank and the ADB is used. In Turkmenistan, a local public-health-education organization has been advocating for the World Bank to release a detailed stakeholder engagement plan accessible in Turkmen language for the COVID-response project.
The banks’ inability to address newly-imposed restrictions on civic participation in the region resulted in lack of transparency and accountability in the design and implementation of COVID-response projects. In Uzbekistan, Miraziz Bazarov, a blogger and human rights activist, published about the misuse of funds from development banks and voiced about a possible case of corruption in an ADB-funded COVID-response project. After Bazarov published an official open letter to ADB he was threatened, beaten, and persecuted by the government. In Tajikistan, a monitoring of WB-funded COVID-response project by a local organization revealed the gaps in the support to vulnerable households, including cases where beneficiaries received less than promised or nothing at all.
You can read more about our assessment of the development banks’ response to COVID in the South Caucasus and Central Asia here.
Hayk Abrahamyan is the Community Organizer for the South Caucasus and Central Asia at the International Accountability Project based in Armenia.