Kazakhstan has been a member of the United Nations for more than 22 years, and almost just as long the country has been cooperating with numerous UN agencies. In an interview with The Astana Times, Stephen Tull, UN Resident Coordinator and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative in Kazakhstan, spoke about the history of this cooperation and its future, in light of the upcoming creation of a development aid agency in Kazakhstan known as KazAID
From your perspective, what was really successful in the cooperation in recent years between Kazakhstan and the UNDP?
It’s not just UNDP. It’s the whole UN system that are very good friends of Kazakhstan. So, from the very beginning of independence, Kazakhstan has shown great value and respect to the UN system and we immediately in the first year of independence signed a basic agreement between the UN and Kazakhstan to establish the UN office in Kazakhstan. Over these 21 years, momentum has been building up from 19 UN agencies in Kazakhstan, among them is UNDP. As you saw from the UNDP 20-year archive report, there are many areas of cooperation. This reflects partly the rapid change and transformation Kazakhstan has been going through. Not only that change was happening, but the government of Kazakhstan welcomed international support to change policies. It is not every country that is so open to the international community providing expert assistance. Over these 20 years, from project to project and from meeting to meeting, we’ve been building the partnership from success to success and learning lessons from what didn’t work. One of the big secrets of success is the positive approach of the government of Kazakhstan. The leadership of Kazakhstan recognised since the time of independence, and I think over the years how much change was needed to get the country where it wanted to be in the future. Now, I’m almost four years in Kazakhstan and I find the government very progressive and by that I mean really always looking to how to improve government and society for the future. That’s very important. Without the political will of the government, the UN can’t help.
There are some particular areas were we’ve been successful so far. One is economic development. Obviously, it’s fueled by natural resources, such as oil and gas and coal. But the economic growth and the ability of Kazakhstan to attract investors and the interest of the business community makes it a very dynamic economy. The second area is in social reforms and there the government also took very seriously the challenge of the post-communist transition of its social system. So that, for example, in welfare systems and social protection and pension policy, the government made very big moves towards a more modern system. A third area is in the environment. Kazakhstan has still a very basic system of environmental protection, but it’s moving toward the kind of system it should have. So the government has done a lot to create protected nature areas and to promote biodiversity. It has begun to work in the area of eco-tourism and to make environmental protection economically interesting to local populations. Of course, now it has established a very interesting greening strategy. So that says that it’s aware that it needs to go from being what we call a brown economy to being a green economy in order to be a modern successful country. And then a fourth area, if I can also say, Kazakhstan in these twenty years wasn’t only looking inside, but also looking outside. This might have started within the context of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). So now it’s becoming a different modern development of maintaining partnerships with the former Soviet countries under the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). But then also, the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement and the decision to take a leading role in eliminating nuclear weapons is an excellent international initiative. But also I mean generally from the very first days of Kazakhstan independence, I know from the permanent representatives to the UN, that they put many initiatives on the table in the UN General Assembly and in New York. Good ideas for international cooperation came from Kazakhstan. And that’s very important. This international perspective is very important for our cooperation because Kazakhstan clearly values regional and international multilateral cooperation.
The successes of the country were mentioned in the report. From what you just said, how could it affect the future partnership of Kazakhstan with the UN organisations?
Let’s just talk about some of the future development challenges. One thing that has been getting a lot of attention, not only in Kazakhstan, is the growing inequality. Income inequality and the different kinds of lifestyle that people, for example, living in the city have versus someone in a very rural area. And then modernisation generally, including modernisation of the cities. With the cities developing so fast, how do you make sure that those cities are growing into ideal cities for the future? The environmental challenges, especially how to achieve the goals set out in Kazakhstan 2050 in terms of environment and energy are very big challenges. Water and energy security, this is more of an issue not only just in Kazakhstan, but in the whole region of Central Asia. One thing I want to really emphasise is that you need to also have known that Kazakhstan has made great progress in economic development and social policies, but it has a lot more to do in terms of political development. President Nursultan Nazarbayev talks about, with Kazakhstan 2050, the need to focus more on political liberalisation. A few weeks ago at the Astana Economic Forum (AEF), he said Kazakhstan needs to invest in people, infrastructure and entrepreneurship. The President is also talking lately about human development and building human capital. And this is all exactly right. This is what I call development of the civil society. The recent study which Nazarbayev University released on Kazakhstan 2050 is a very good study of the challenges for the future, and one thing that they conclude is that there is a big need for institutionalising change now. There’s been a lot done for laws and institutions for the economic system. But it’s the time now, with all the change that Kazakhstan is going through, you need more institutionalisation of civil rights and the rule of law. Those are some of the main challenges right now. I think going ahead UNDP and the other agencies are working really focused on this kind of modernisation of the whole society.
Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov has also talked about the creation of KazAID.
I’ve been working especially with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) since 2011 on that. And my UNDP office, as well as the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, are working closely with the MFA on this. There are many, many countries interested in seeing Kazakhstan develop KazAID.
Kazakhstan, because of its wealth, is able to provide assistance to other countries and I think it’s a very important contribution to the foreign policy of Kazakhstan because providing assistance gives the country more prosperous neighbours, which is good. So that the neighbouring countries are more prosperous and more stable, but then also the international community will give more attention to Kazakhstan when it sees it acting across its borders to help others. So already many countries and many of us in the UN see Kazakhstan as a strategically important country in this part of the world. And we think that KazAID is a way for Kazakhstan to continue to play that strategically important role.
There’re a few areas where I’m encouraging the government to go ahead and start doing projects. For example, the greening strategy. The environmental change that Kazakhstan is doing inside, including hosting EXPO 2017. This gives Kazakhstan resources and knowledge to be able to share with its neighbours in Central Aisa. And that’s the idea of the famous green bridge, really. Another area is in what we call disaster risk reduction. And that’s just to say that Central and South Asia have earthquakes, floods, avalanches and other disasters on a regular basis. And the international community, including the UN, will come and help when a catastrophe happens. But the first help comes from the people in that place and the neighbouring countries. So the work that Kazakhstan is already doing to set up a disaster centre in Almaty and also within the Istanbul process for supporting Afghanistan taking a leadership role in this area of disaster preparedness, these actions position Kazakhstan to, in the future, be one of the leading providers of assistance in Central and South Asia. In fact, Kazakhstan already has been one of the leading countries giving assistance in Central Asia and Afghanistan over the last eight years. It’s given over $60 million in humanitarian assistance and then with current development projects and trade activities, it’s much higher. So the foreign policy and the KazAID idea is to increase the amount of aid, but also to do it in a more systematic way so that it is most effective and so that people know that Kazakhstan is providing this assistance. It’s the international community that needs to know and the people of Kazakhstan need to know what the government is doing to help other people.
Are there any similar agencies in the region? Russia has RossSotrudnichestvo. Japan has its own agency. Can you recall any others?
The closest one, besides the Russian Federation, is Azerbaijan, which is also just beginning to develop its aid agency. So they’re in the same sort of position as Kazakhstan. Turkey, which isn’t too far, has a very strong tradition and agency called TIKA. But those are really it. The other countries from Central Asia are not really in a position to offer the kind of assistance to the neighbours that Kazakhstan is.
Perhaps that makes the initiative of Kazakhstan more relevant and actual?
Yes, it’s exactly why from the UN and from the international community, we strongly support Kazakhstan doing this.
What must the country do before creating such an agency?
I know that the government and parliament are working on the legislation to set up KazAID. That’s very important just so that there’s a legal basis for it. But then there’s only a few people working on KazAID within the government and they’re kind of doing it temporarily. So as soon as possible, the government needs to set up an aid agency, whether they call it KazAID or something else, but a team of people who are going to be the professional core for KazAID. There are some people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who know and understand very well how the aid system works internationally. But to do the work, they need more people around them, a permanent office, a bigger team. And then also, as I said, Kazakhstan really needs to start what we call its branding. It needs to start doing assistance activities and say this is KazAID. So that for example, the assistance going from Kazakhstan today should be really advertised. Many countries and the European Union, for example, make sure to always advertise that this is assistance from Kazakhstan or from the EU or from France or from the USA. So it’s from the people of Kazakhstan, not from the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Emergencies but from the people of Kazakhstan.
Then another area that I mentioned before: I think it’s the right time for journalists to help tell the people of Kazakhstan about this and why it’s important. People of Kazakhstan are of course proud anytime that Kazakhstan is getting positive attention from the international community. So think about it if you go to the beach in Turkey this summer, and you meet there someone from Tajikistan and that person says in conversation, “Oh, you know my village received assistance in rebuilding a school from Kazakhstan.” It makes you proud. So I think the people of Kazakhstan want to and need to know this kind of assistance that they’re providing to others. And, finally, of course, it’s important for the reputation of Kazakhstan in the UN. And when, for example, Kazakhstan is seeking the UN Security Council seat in 2017-2018, this will show that it’s a very good international partner.
Is there any status for these kinds of organisations?
It represents the country. So within the UN system, we see this as Kazakhstan. And so in many different UN policy setting situations, Kazakhstan has a voice to decide what the international policies will be. And then one possibility for KazAID, which isn’t decided yet, but a possibility, is to establish a part of KazAID that will actually go as an NGO and do work on the ground. Let me explain. It could be that the government and KazAID simply give money to other NGOs or UN agencies do work in Afghanistan. So, if there is a project in Afghanistan, building a hospital, Kazakhstan could give money to a UN agency or international NGO to do that project in Afghanistan. Or maybe the government will set up a part of KazAID that does the work itself in Afghanistan. So it’s kind of like an NGO within the government. This is what TIKA is, or the Japanese aid agency, or USAID, the German Aid Agency GTZ. They have their own people on the ground to build a school. And if Kazakhstan does that, then those workers will be given certain rights and privileges because they’re humanitarian or development assistance workers in another country. So they’ll have certain privileges and be protected by the international community when working.
This is what I believe is done on a bilateral level. What could an organisation like KazAID do on a global scale?
Yes, absolutely and that’s the best way. Almost all of the assistance given by Kazakhstan, $60 million, is bilateral. The important thing for Kazakhstan is to work more in the multilateral system. So it can contribute to UN agencies for international assistance work. It can contribute to international NGOs to do work in another country. And I think one of the things we start with KazAID is what we call triangular projects. For example, we’ve been talking about doing something in Afghanistan. So it’s the government of Kazakhstan, the government of Afghanistan, plus UNDP can be the partner here and in Afghanistan to make it all work. That’s becoming much more of a popular way to do projects.
Are there any standards according to which states give foreign aid?
It’s entirely up to each country. The thing is what countries do when they compare themselves with others. Kazakhstan a few years ago, during this period in 2009-11, was maybe in the top five contributors of assistance in Central Asia. Some countries are very proud, like the European Union, for example, to be the number one on giving humanitarian or development assistance to a country or Africa or globally. And there are even clubs of donors. With time, Kazakhstan will have to decide how much money it wants to invest and where it wants to be in a list of overall donors. So the UN and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) always keep track of which countries are the donors. And so Kazakhstan wants to always be at least on that list somewhere. And what is important is, if it is not all the assistance but humanitarian assistance, you see it goes up and then it goes down. KazAID has to help it grow. Because if Kazakhstan was a donor five years ago, not giving any assistance to its neighbouring countries, nobody cares anymore.
Can a donor country be a recipient at the same time?
Yes, there’s different ways for Kazakhstan to continue to receive assistance. But you see Kazakhstan doesn’t need grants from many other countries, it doesn’t need the money. It still wants to have access to major loans, for example, from the World Bank or Asian Development Bank. But individual countries, the European Union and the UN will not be able to give very much money to Kazakhstan. That’s okay because Kazakhstan doesn’t need our money. Our partnership is that we provide our expertise and advice and we help build the networks with other countries and with experts.
Is there anything more KazAID could do, which will not be just within the humanitarian assistance? And how KazAID could be different from the others?
That’s really not just the humanitarian assistance. It’s hard today to differentiate the humanitarian and development assistance. So, if you are building a hospital in Afghanistan, is it humanitarian or development? It’s both. But the main thing is there are many areas where Kazakhstan right now can help with development assistance. I’ll give an example: disaster preparedness. Before there is an emergency you’re not coming in to help victims, you’re building institutions to help victims. Anther area is the environmental projects, energy efficiency or renewable energy projects. So the minister of environment describes the green bridge this way: that Kazakhstan is going to expand the use of renewable energy like solar and wind power. It is building networks for supplies from Europe or China of equipment and giving experts the opportunity to come to teach Kazakhstan how to do this. And even developing its own green jobs here, producing equipment and experts in Kazakhstan. So, without the expertise, it’s easier under the green bridge to go to Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan and say, “One of you benefits from what we have already learned and what we already did.” It’s because Kazakhstan is going through many changes itself that it is in a great position to help other countries to go through these changes. We also have this civil service hub – an “international hub for civil service” – based here in Kazakhstan. It’s actually an international hub with different countries, 22 different countries are part of this hub. It shares experiences. What works in one place, might work in another place for civil service reform. Kazakhstan can help share its experience because it has made a very good progress in civil service reform.