Since 1948, October 24 has been celebrated as United Nations day, with meetings, exhibitions and other events about the UN's aims, and its achievements. In Central Asia, and in countries around the world, the day highlights the many ways in which the UN contributes to making the world a better place to live in.
This year, the day has a special significance as it is also an occasion to commemorate those who died in the bomb attack on the UN office in Baghdad on August 19. "This shocking event was the first time a UN office has been directly targeted in such an attack," said Jerzy Skuratowicz, UN Resident Coordinator in Kyrgyzstan. "Now, more than ever, the UN needs to deliver its central message of peace and development."
Despite this attack, UN forces continue their vital work in conflict zones around the world. But as well as its work in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance, the UN works tirelessly against 'soft threats', associated with poverty, ill health and a lack of education.
UN agencies in Central Asia tackle such pressing issues as resettlement of refugees, trafficking, drugs, HIV and AIDS, child and maternal mortality, and extreme poverty.
The targets against which global development progress is now measured are the eight Millenium Development Goals, the roadmap used to achieve the aims of the Millenium Declaration that was agreed unanimously by UN member states in September 2000. These goals commit the international community to promoting human development as means to achieving social and economic progress worldwide.
1. Eradicate hunger and extreme poverty
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental stability
8. Develop a global partnership for development
UN Week events in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek focus on the Millenium Development Goals. They started with the opening of the Photography Exhibition at the Slavic University in Bishkek. TCA Photographer Vladimir Pirogov was the winner of a competition on the theme "To make this world a better place", to which many talented photographers submitted work. A program of special publications and broadcasts was also organized in the run-up to October 24.
On the day itself the first national Millenium Development Goals progress report for the Kyrgyz Republic which was recently published with a launch ceremony at the Kyrgyz Opera and Ballet Theater in Bishkek.
"Central Asia is already ahead on the Millenium Development Goals with regard to education, due to the Soviet legacy. Here, it is a question of maintaining educational standards and ensuring enough money is available to schools," explained Mr Skuratowicz in a TCA interview. "In Kyrgyzstan, some progress has been made towards the other goals, aided by economic development in this country.
"However, we are still at a very early stage - for example the fight against HIV and AIDS is only just beginning," he added.
The UN in Kyrgyzstan
The UN is taking the lead on these goals, including extreme poverty, and it works closely with other international organizations in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the Kyrgyz government, and other NGOs.
Overall, the UN agencies (such as UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNV, UNAIDS) role is to build the country's capacity for development. This year, the UN agencies implement programs in Kyrgyzstan, covering among the others following areas: poverty reduction; local self-governance; preventive development; national government; joint program dealing with HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, maternity health, child's rights, protection of refugees.
"There are several directions of the poverty reduction program, but overall it addresses poverty by empowering the poor - helping them (especially women) towards self-reliance, advancement and more active participation in community development," said Skuratowicz. "It also provides access to micro-finance for the poor, mobilized in self-help groups. It is a measure of the success of social mobilization activities that they have now become institutionalized in Kyrgyzstan."
Skuratowicz points out that the UN organizations' activities are only part of the solution: "Development ultimately depends on the people of Kyrgyzstan and its government, and the government appears to be committed to improving the economic situation."
Since Kyrgyz independence in 1991, the UN has worked closely with the Kyrgyz government, which has consistently supported the UN presence in this country.
In the last 12 years, UN has strengthened its presence in Kyrgyzstan. Organizations with a permanent mission there are the UNDP, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Office of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Other programs are coordinated via regional Central Asia offices: the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) in Tashkent, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Almaty.
UN organizations also work with other international organizations such as the Mission of the International Organization for Migration, and the OSCE. "The UNDP and OSCE are working together to support the institution of ombudsman, created last year by the Kyrgyz Parliament," said Skuratowicz. "The ombudsman is a person to whom any citizen whose civil liberties or civil rights have been violated can go, and is therefore an important part of human rights protection in Kyrgyzstan."
The problems faced in the Fergana Valley require not only a joint effort by different agencies including the UNDP, UNICEF and the UNDOC, but also coordination with activities in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the two states who share the valley in a complex relationship with Kyrgyzstan.
"In southern Kyrgyzstan the root problem is a shortage of resources, housing, land and money," said Skuratowicz. "Preventive development is a tool being successfully used in conflict resolution, promoting development as a means to create social harmony and address potential conflicts before they occur. There are a number of cross-border initiatives, for example a program linking Batken with Khojund just across the border in Tajikistan."
The UN's many other activities in Kyrgyzstan include the supplies provided to victims of this year's mudslides in southern Kyrgyzstan, programs on maternal mortality and reproductive health, and legal support for the most vulnerable groups in Kyrgyz society including single mothers, multiple-children families, refugees, and the elderly. This year's UN Day is a chance to look back on those activities and progress towards the Millenium Goals, and it gives new hope for future development in Kyrgyzstan and across the world.
Over the last 8 years, the UNHCR has helped Kyrgyzstan to deal with an influx of refugees fleeing conflict in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There are approximately 7,900 refugees in Kyrgyzstan, the majority ethnic Kyrgyz from Tajikistan, who are awaiting citizenship, as well as some Afghans and ethnic Tajiks, and a handful of refugees from Chechnya, Iran and Sri Lanka.
UNHCR has supported the citizenship process, and is working with the Kyrgyz government to help integrate the former refugees in Kyrgyzstan. Many of these former refugees have chosen to reside in the Chui Valley. "Citizenship is usually the best solution for these refugees, as they can then receive assistance from the Kyrgyz government," UNHCR spokesperson Gulzat Aitimbetova told the TCA.
"In the first years following the arrival of the Tajik refugees the communities that accepted them received funds for infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. Usually the local communities accept these incomers without major conflicts."
Ethnic Tajiks and refugees from Afghanistan who want to return home also receive voluntary repatriation assistance. Some refugees are going back to Afghanistan now the Taliban has been ousted, but as the situation there still isn't secure, some have been resettled in third countries such as the US, Canada and EU countries.
According to Aitimbetova, Central Asia is a region with high conflict potential, so the other important part of UNHCR's work is contingency planning and training of local officials.
Large families used to be encouraged in Kyrgyzstan, with mothers receiving financial support, insurance and thorough maternity care. Now, due to a chronic shortage of money maternal and child mortality is rising, and many people cannot afford medical care or contraception.
The Medical Social Patronage System seeks to address that problem by assigning one Social Patronage Worker (SPW) to 40 families. The UNFPA gave financial support to this system initially in Osh, Batken and Jalal-Abad and now in the whole country. There has been no maternal mortality at all in the families covered by the country's 380 SPWs.
The UNFPA is a major provider of contraception in Kyrgyzstan, targeting vulnerable groups such as the very poor. "As well as distributing contraception, we support NGOs educating adolescents on safe sex," says Gulnara Kadyrkulova, UNFPA Project Coordinator on Reproductive Health Sub-Program. "Young people face a lack of information because social and cultural norms make it difficult for them to discuss sex and contraception."
A large part of the UNFPA's work is in raising awareness, for example about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and a woman's right to choose how many children she has. According to Kadyrkulova, new laws adopted in Kyrgyzstan on reproductive issues and domestic violence are very progressive, but many women don't know their rights.
"The UNFPA has also worked with the State Commission of Religious Affairs and the Clerical Department of Muslims to win the support of religious leaders who now use their influence with the population to encourage men to practice family planning and treat their wives properly," explained Kadyrkulova.
As well as its work on reproductive health and family planning, the UNFPA helps the government with its population development strategy, training statisticians and monitoring migration from the mountains to the valleys to ensure that infrastructure disparities are addressed.
By Clare Nuttall,
The Times of Central Asia, October 24, 2003