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The broken promises of development in Tajikistan

Article by Shoira Olimova

May 17, 2021

The broken promises of development in Tajikistan

Khujand, Tajikistan

In 2015, a Chinese construction firm, Pekin (Beijing), embarked on an ambitious plan to build a so-called ‘Chinatown’ in Khujand City, Tajikistan. With 15 high-rise buildings, meant to house 1,200 families, a four storey school building and other communal facilities, the project – a joint venture with local authorities – would purportedly transform the Syr Darya riverbank within five years.[1]


To make way for this construction, 20 houses were demolished and lands seized, after residents were promised a replacement property in the new development. In total, 32 families lost their homes and lands, including Khoshimov and his family. For over five years now, the household of ten has been renting a two bedroom apartment, not far from the riverbank, hoping they will eventually be able to move into a new apartment.[2] The rent for this temporary accommodation is still being paid by the Government, albeit with some delays and bureaucratic problems. Now in 2021, a once thriving community has been reduced to living in squalor.


Before we had homes and gardens. It was clean. Now, look at what happened. For the last two years, this place has become a garbage dump, with so many stray dogs. We have to constantly clean near our home to prevent diseases”– said another resident.[3]


Instead of constructing the promised new buildings, Pekin withdrew investment after it was discovered the area was vulnerable to flooding, necessitating additional investments to make the project viable.[4] With the project stalled, families are now facing a dire situation, having lost their homes and living in considerably worse conditions than before.


The unfortunate story of Khoshimov and his neighbours is all too familiar for Tajik residents. The promise of development, guaranteed by the Government and funded by foreign interests, rarely materialises for Tajikistan’s ordinary citizens.


The state of development in Tajikistan

A landlocked country that was once part of the USSR, Tajikistan is considered to be the least developed among the Central Asian states. According to one estimate, more than 50 per cent of Tajiks live below the poverty line.[5] After almost 30 years of independence, the country continues to face multiple geopolitical and economic problems that threaten its stability, including authoritarian policies, widespread corruption, unemployment and extremism. The President of the Republic of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, who has been in office since 1992, has responded to these crises by coming down harshly on rivals and critics, attempting to discredit them all as ‘Islamic extremists’.[6]


Nonetheless, Tajikistan is looked upon favourably by foreign investors, including those from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, the UK and the US. In fact, China has replaced Russia as the largest investor in the country, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.[7] Notably, many major projects are operated or outright owned by foreign entities. For instance, more than 80 per cent of gold ore fields are operated by Chinese companies and recently, rights to the ‘Verkhniy Kumarg’ gold mine were granted to the Tibet Huayu Mining company in exchange for the construction of the heat-and-power station (HPS) in Dushanbe.[8]


The overall impact of these investments is not immediately obvious, especially when it comes to measuring the benefits for ordinary citizens. On the one hand, increased economic activity may translate into the construction of roads, modern buildings and increasing support for small and medium businesses, but at the same time Tajikistan’s debt has been increasing rapidly, with external public debt exceeding 40 per cent of the GDP.[9] By the end of 2021, the national debt is estimated to reach 3.7 billion USD.[10]


The worrying increase in foreign debt obligations has not slowed down the pace of lending, especially from development finance institutions. According to Early Warning System data, since January 2019, six development banks have pledged 1.008 billion USD in new investments, covering a wide variety of sectors from energy and transport to water and sanitation. Of the six institutions, the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are the primary funders.[11]


Table 1: Breakdown by sector and development bank for investments proposed in Tajikistan since August 2019.


Publicly available data clearly demonstrates enormous sums of money, relative to the size of the economy, coming in to fund ‘development’ in Tajikistan.


A cycle of corruption and poorly designed projects

For almost 30 years, Tajikistan has been struggling to achieve energy security, particularly in the winter periods. However, data from the Early Warning System shows that since August 2019, development banks have proposed investments totalling over $320 million USD to support the energy sector alone, begging the question – why is this need still not filled?

As shown in Table 1, investments by development finance institutions are heavily concentrated in the ‘Energy’ and ‘Transport’ sectors. At first, this would appear unremarkable given Tajikistan’s chronic energy shortages especially in the winter period. But the main energy provider, Barqi Tojik, simultaneously imposes limits on energy use in the winter whilst prioritising exports to neighbouring Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.[12] The majority of recently proposed development bank energy investments are made to Barqi Tojik – a project developing the energy infrastructure of Dushanbe, Dangara, Buston, and Panjakent financed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and a project rehabilitating the Nurek hydropower plant funded by the World Bank are just two examples.[13]


In 2019, the debt of Barqi Tojik exceeded 22.9 billion somoni ($2.4 billion USD); a portion of the $105 million USD Asian Development Bank funded Power Sector Development Programme is aimed at simply restructuring Barqi Tojik’s debt.[14] Despite the continuing need for energy access in Tajikistan, the World Bank and other development finance institutions continue to fund projects designed for exporting electricity to neighbouring countries.[15]


Widespread corruption and fraud further take away from the effectiveness of development initiatives. Take for example, the alleged misuse of funds in implementing the $29 million USD Irrigation Rehabilitation Project (Asian Development Bank, Project Number: 33042-013):[16] “Our investigation shows that there was money already allocated for this purpose. Those responsible for implementing the project just repainted the water tanks rather than upgrading and replacing equipment. They then reported to donors that they had made the promised improvements.”[17]– Ikrom Mamadov, PO Youth Group on Protection of Environment (YGPE)


Major economic sectors including finance, industry, air transportation and many others are controlled by President Rahmon’s family members and prominent government positions are occupied by relatives.[18]


 The absence of transparency and access to information

“We always think that there is no money, however as we see from the Early Warning System data, there is enough money, which unfortunately is not used properly.” – Bahri Abdurahmanova, Tajik CSO Representative


For a citizenry to make informed decisions, the first step is to ensure the availability and accessibility of information about plans that may impact their lives and environment. Despite the large sums of investments detailed above, for Tajik citizens it is difficult and often risky to request information about these projects. The information that is available in the public domain, including documents disclosed by development banks themselves, is usually only available in English, a language that the majority of Tajikistan’s population do not speak.


Compounding the challenge, it is difficult to find information in Russian or Tajik regarding ongoing investments on official government websites. Although the majority of projects financed by development banks are in cooperation with government agencies, there is little information made available from the official state site or even upon request. Therefore, communities and civil society do not have access to information about development projects, country strategy, investment, and debts.


Given this reality of lack of transparency and little accountability, how can development banks continue to provide financing to Tajikistan? Most development banks have a monitoring and accountability mechanism to address certain complaints but this does not address the fundamental problem that information about projects, access to project documents and generally, the ability to engage productively on development projects is not something that can be guaranteed in the present environment. For many, the risks of speaking out are too high to justify.


For the last couple of years, some independent mass media and international NGOs have launched disclosures of investment information to audiences for discussion and to involve civil society organisations in the monitoring process. The Early Warning System, a civil society initiative providing access to information on development bank financed projects for communities who will be affected, seeks to close this transparency аnd accountability gap. The Early Warning System operates by exchanging advice, tools and resources with communities and the local organisations and groups supporting them, and operates by connecting civil society, providing access to information and supporting community-led responses for community-led development.[19]


COVID-19 relief and projects

Since the onset of the pandemic, millions of dollars have been received by the Government of Tajikistan from the international community to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, including from development finance institutions. To date, development finance institutions have proposed seven projects totalling $92 million USD to mainly support the healthcare system.[20] The European Union alone has provided at least 52.2 million EUR ($57 million USD) for short- and long-term COVID-19 support to be provided through partners like the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and German development agency GIZ.[21] In addition, “millions of dollars’ worth of other emergency support has come, in either money, logistical guidance or in-kind aid, such as PPE, thermometers and even food, from the World Bank, the United States, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Switzerland, and the Asian Development Bank, World Bank.”[22]


Table 2: COVID-19 investment in Tajikistan by DFIs


Despite the mobilisation of funds and resources, most Tajik citizens are unable to freely access much needed supplies like masks and thermometers. Social media posts suggest hospitals were often lacking in essential equipment.[23] Government figures for the number of COVID-19 infections and casualties are hard to trust without independent verification. With hospitals facing surges in cases, many people opted to treat themselves at home, resulting in an unknown number for deaths and new infections that are not formally reported. Activists, fearing the lack of information would further jeopardise people’s health and safety launched an initiative to track and report on COVID-19 deaths and infections on social media but this initiative was promptly shut down.


Moreover, since the beginning of the pandemic, public broadcasts and official messaging have underplayed or avoided directly addressing the crisis. In contrast to the approach adopted by many governments to launch public education campaigns and share regular COVID-19 updates, Tajikistan TV has devoted a majority of its airtime to broadcasting documentary films about President Rahmon and his political achievements. Recently, during the press conference with the Ministry of Health, it was announced that all infected people have been treated for free at hospitals and that since December 2020, there have not been any COVID-19 infected persons identified. This statement starkly contradicts the experience of Tajik citizens who continue to deal with the fallout of the crisis.[24]


Prioritise people-centered development

‘The right to development is the measure of the respect of all other human rights. That should be our aim: a situation in which all individuals are enabled to maximise their potential, and to contribute to the evolution of society as a whole.’ – Kofi Annan


In order to fulfill the promise of development for ordinary citizens in Tajikistan, the country has to shift from investing primarily in the energy, transport and infrastructure sectors to investing in its best asset – its people. While this includes investing in digital access, sustainable tourism, and loosening restrictions in the informal sector, development in Tajikistan must begin to be people-centered by focusing on civil society priorities for development and treating Tajik citizens as equal partners and beneficiaries. For too long now, Tajik citizens have been unable to fully and freely participate in the decisions that will shape their homes, lives and futures. The reluctance of the Government to dialogue with civil society or tolerate dissent must end. After all, the experiences of communities and civil society worldwide have demonstrated that when projects are designed and lived by the same people, adverse impacts can be avoided and the right to development fulfilled.[25] By instituting a people-centered approach, Tajikistan can end the legacy of broken promises and develop in line with the priorities of its people.


Shoira Olimova is a community organiser and activist from Tajikistan. As a Community Organiser for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, Shoira leads International Accountability Project (IAP’s) work with local communities in the region to support community responses on projects and development processes. She has obtained her Master’s degree in Politics and Security of Central Asia and Afghanistan at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek.


Image by Ninara under (CC).


[1] Masum Muhammadrajab, “China town” project in Tajikistan failed, Radio Ozodi, January 2019,

[2] Interview with resident- Khoshimov A.  by Shoira Olimova.29  December 2020, Khujand city, Tajikistan.

[3] Interview with resident (anonymous)  by Shoira Olimova.29  December 2020, Khujand city, Tajikistan.

[4] Masum Muhammadrajab, “China town” project in Tajikistan failed, Radio Ozodi, January 2019,

[5] Paul Stronski, Tajikistan at Twenty-Five: Rahmon Consolidates Power Tajikistan at Twenty-Five: Rahmon Consolidates Power, Carnegie Endowment, February 2016,

[6]  Ibid.

[7] Satander Trade Markers, Tajikistan: Foreign Investment,

[8] Current time Asia, Facebook Post, Facebook, September 2019,

[9] Kayumarsi Ato, The disputes round the external debt of Tajikistan: Who & how will it be returned?, Radio Ozodi, January 2021,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Early Warning System, Projects proposed by Development Banks for the South Caucasus & Central Asia, February 2021,!/vizhome/SouthCaucasusCentralAsiaRegionProjectsJan-Aug2020/EARLYWARNINGSYSTEMDevelopmentbankprojects

[12] Haydar Shodiev, Tajikistan sells electricity to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan for $ 40 million, ASIA-Plus Group, July 2020,

[13] Early Warning System, Dushanbe Energy Loss Reduction Project (EBRD-51667),; Early Warning System, Nurek Hydropower Rehabilitation Project Phase 2 (WB-P173804),

[14] Fergana News, Debts of the Tajik state energy holding “Barqi Tojik” exceeded $ 2.4 billion, January 2019,; Early Warning System, Power Sector Development Program (AB-53315-001),

[15] Ibid.

[16] Asian Development Bank, Tajikistan: Irrigation  Rehabilitation Project, Validation Report, December 2013,

[17] Interview with Ikrom Mamedov, PO Youth Group on Protection of Environment (YGPE), January 2021.

[18] Paul Stronski, Tajikistan at Twenty-Five: Rahmon Consolidates Power Tajikistan at Twenty-Five: Rahmon Consolidates Power, Carnegie Endowment, February 2016,

[19] Early Warning System,

[20] Early Warning System, Where is development bank money going for the COVID-19 response?, April 2021,!/vizhome/EarlyWarningSystemCOVID-19ProjectsbyDevelopmentBanks_16049749996170/Main?publish=yes

[21] Flanders Trade, CORONA VIRUS – The situation in Tajikistan,

[22] Ibid.

[23] Interviews/comments on social media from the people who were in hospitals during the pandemic period with COVID-19 infection.

[24] Nigora Fazlidden, Head of the Ministry of Health of Tajikistan: The main factor of success in the victory over COVID-19 was the refusal of quarantine, ASIA-Plus, February 2021,

[25] Ishita Petkar and Lynn Schweisfurth, Can communities lead their own development in places where civil society is severely restricted? Development banks think so., IAP, April 2020,

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