What International Aid Can't Do

The international community is great for disaster relief, but it struggles with creating healthy business environments. What's the secret to generating entrepreneurship?


One thing the international community is very good at is disaster relief. A large number of agencies--government and non-government, public and private--have the combined logistical capacity to quickly provide basic disaster relief almost anywhere on earth on amazingly short notice. Whether the Indonesian tsunami,  the earthquake in Haiti, or even the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, these agencies can deploy the most basic relief efforts on extremely short notice. They are not perfect, and cannot provide relief perfectly, but the speed with which they mobilize is remarkable.

Immediate disaster relief is a core competency of the international community. Even in situations not involving natural (or man-made) disasters, they can mobilize very quickly. When I was researching the stricken Uzbek communities of Osh, Kyrgyzstan last month, I saw little UNHCR signs everywhere. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees had not only provided immediate food and shelter for those left homeless by last year's June riots, they were were spearheading the reconstruction of several large neighborhoods.

What had stalled out in these neighborhoods, however, was a revival of the thriving Uzbek businesses that once defined Osh. In its 3,000 year history, Osh has been a center for commerce, and that commerce has been driven by the Uzbek community, who have worked as merchants and traders for centuries. In the 18 months or so since last year's riots, however, the Uzbek business community has stagnated.

There are several causes for that stagnation. Many Uzbeks feel besieged in their own neighborhoods, called mahallahs. There is a constant threat of theft by either officials in the government or linked to the government. And there is the fear of missing justice: because none of the perpetrator's of last year's violence have been held accountable, there is little desire to go out into the community again. The social isolation there is severe.

So what can be done about this? There are no easy answers. I had the tremendous pleasure recently of sitting down with two pioneering entrepreneurs from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union: the 2011 Bill Maynes Fellows at the Eurasia Foundation. Dr. Valeria Klitsuonova leads a groundbreaking small business association in Belarus, which has created a thriving rural tourism industry in the countryside. And Matluba Uljabaeva is the Chairwoman of the National Association of Small and Medium Business of Tajikistan (NASMB), and helped to create the American Chamber of Commerce in Tajikistan.

The experiences of these two extraordinary women might offer some clues for how to push things forward in Osh. In 1989, Ms. Uljahaeva started one of the first computer labs in Tajikistan funded by IBM, for teaching students how to use technology. "If you teach students how to use technology," she says, "they get it. They know how to put that to use."

Things got complicated during Tajikistan's civil war in the 1990s. "It got a little dangerous when the military would come for computer classes," she says. The rebels could have attacked the computer lab. After the cease-fire, Ms. Uljabaeva focused on training and educating the victims of the war: some widows, some children who had lost parents, and so on.

Since the end of the fighting, Tajikistan has seen steady, if slow, economic growth. Ms. Uljabaeva believes that growth must be driven by private investment efforts. "The data must be open," she told me. "Without open data, how could a business owner know what to do?" Things aren't perfect in Tajikistan--it rates poorly in the World Bank's Doing Business surveys--but it has improved the last few years.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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