Kazakhstan, as we have said many times before, has come a long way in a very short time. The country’s development in the last two decades has been remarkable both in its speed and the breadth of the transformation.
But such change, of course, does not happen at a uniform speed across the board. As the country has developed, there have been times when progress has been slower.
Inevitably, there are areas where improvements have not come as fast as they should have. This may be because of difficulties in bringing about the changes required, the lead time necessary to see the impact of new investment on the ground or, in some cases, new pressures and strains.
The terrible fire in Astana earlier this month, which cost the lives of five young children, put the spotlight on areas where, despite real efforts and investment, progress has not kept pace with national needs. There remains a shortage of high-quality, affordable housing. While living standards for our citizens have improved dramatically, not all families have benefited fully and some continue to struggle badly to make ends meet.
We need, of course, to wait for the full investigation into the fire. But it seems, from all we know already, that both these challenges contributed to this heart-breaking tragedy which united the nation in grief and shock. It has led, rightly, to appeals for action to prevent another such catastrophe and to begin to tackle the reasons which contributed to it.
The authorities – at both city and national level – must respond to these appeals with both immediate and long-term measures. Low-income families across Astana, for example, are to be helped urgently to install smoke alarms in their homes. It is a practical step which can be delivered quickly and, the evidence shows, can be the difference between life and death in the event of a fire.
But while such alarms are a welcome first step, there has been widespread recognition that there is also the need for longer-term solutions which must include improving the availability and quality of housing and support for families. Here there is re-assurance that tackling these challenges have already been made a priority.
Over $5 billion, for example, has been spent in the last two years to expand and improve housing stock with public funding being used to attract private investment. This is just the start with the ambitious target, under the Nurly Zher programme, of providing better accommodation for 1.5 million families over the next 15 years.
The programme includes measures to build many new properties for rent and to help more families buy their own homes. Additional finance is being provided for home loans, lower payments are being set for targeted groups while the whole process of accessing mortgages is being streamlined.
It is important, as President Nursultan Nazarbayev stressed in his most recent state-of–he-nation address in October, that these plans are delivered and additional measures identified and acted on. He said that quality and affordable housing was essential to create “a comfortable living environment” for the country’s citizens.
He also stressed in his speech the central role of the family in national life and ambitions and urged the Government to ensure they received the support they needed. It is why major investment should be poured into education and health to give children the best possible start in life.
In keeping with a country actively encouraging a growing population, there is also financial support for families including additional help for those with the most children. Mothers, for example, who raise seven children are awarded national heroine status. They receive life-time benefits as well as tax breaks and child support in recognition of their hard work and contribution to society.
But, as all parents know, bringing up children is expensive. And it can be especially difficult to pay – or even find – the good accommodation needed to house a large family. It is why the proposal, in the wake of the Astana tragedy, that fresh impetus is to be given to building new apartments, which can accommodate bigger than normal families is welcome.
So, too, are ideas to look at the specific needs of larger families and see whether more personal help might be given. After all, Kazakhstan’s young and growing population, as we said in the previous issue, is our greatest natural resource. It is both critical and right that we nurture and support the families who are rearing the individuals on which our future depends.
The newly installed Kazakh government led by Prime Minister Askar Mamin has a clearly defined set of goals in this area and it is this area which will be watched by the people most closely.