Remarks by Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia Javier Piedra at the Post COVID-19: Building Resilience in Central Asia

Thursday, July 9, 2020

[As prepared] 

Good morning, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’d like to thank the George Washington University and the International Tax and Investment Center for organizing today’s discussion. 

I’d also like to thank Ambassador Javlon Vakhabov for his partnership, and for his commitment to building long-term prosperity for the people of Uzbekistan and the region.

USAID and Central Asia: Over 25 Years of Partnership

For more than 25 years, USAID has partnered with the people of Central Asia to accelerate their countries’ development, promote stability, and foster regional connectivity and cooperation among the five states, and between them and Afghanistan. 

Earlier this year, in fact, the United States Government launched the Central Asia Strategy. To implement the strategy, USAID is leveraging new openings for reform-oriented development and interregional connectivity, expanding on our successes, and scaling up our programs. Our focus is on strengthening democratic institutions, promoting economic cooperation, and fostering energy independence to build a more secure and prosperous Central Asia.

Strengthening Democratic Institutions

USAID is working to strengthen democratic institutions, which are foundational to the overall development of Central Asia. Strong, democratic institutions are critical because they help to:

1) safeguard states’ sovereignty and independence; 

2) develop resilience to extremist ideology; 

3) promote the rule of law and respect for human rights; and

4) promote U.S. investment and development of Central Asia. 

To help strengthen state sovereignty and independence, USAID stands firmly with civil society and independent media to protect civic space, foster media freedom, and improve access to credible information. For example, in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, we are working to strengthen independent media outlets, promote media literacy, and ensure access to quality information.

We are helping to build resilience and challenge extremist ideology by supporting civic and democratic engagement among youth. 

We are committed to promoting religious freedom and to working with faith-based organizations. This encourages tolerant and pluralist societies where, hopefully, extremist ideologies cannot take root.

On rule of law, we are building confidence in judicial systems. In Uzbekistan our programs have cut the average length of court cases in half, reducing a backlog while building confidence in the system. 

We also work in with civil society and the governments in the region to combat human trafficking. By enhancing cooperation between source, transit and destination countries we target the root causes of trafficking while identifying successful evidence-based practices to help end human slavery.

Promoting U.S. Investment in and Development of Central Asia

USAID is strengthening opportunities for U.S. investment in the region. We are working to improve the business regulatory environment, ensure contract enforcement, and support adherence to international trade and business standards. 

Integration throughout Central Asia—including with Afghanistan—is crucial for U.S. investment. That’s why USAID has for years hosted the Central Asia Trade Forum—now one of the region's largest annual trade promotion events. Over the past four years alone, the fora have resulted in $249 million in signed letters of intent for Central Asian and Afghan firms.

And in August 2019, more than 60 Afghan firms gathered in Almaty, Kazakhstan for the first-ever Passage to Prosperity Central Asia forum. The event focused on building trade connections between Afghanistan and Kazakhstan.

Increasing Regional Connectivity

Forging regional connectivity is critical to the region’s long-term growth. And looking to the future, Central Asian countries will continue to depend on energy and water access to sustain their economies and fuel growth.

USAID is working to bolster regional connectivity. We are supporting the Secretariat of the Central Asia-South Asia Power Project, or CASA-1000, that will facilitate the export of surplus hydropower from Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

This cooperation will not only provide much needed electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but will also create jobs and generate revenues in these countries. 

In December 2019, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic agreed to adopt a regional water management tool introduced by USAID that facilitates the sharing of water resource data. This marks a significant step toward improving the dialogue between the four countries and paves the way for the optimization of hydropower production. 

Beyond economic development, we are improving equitable access to quality health care—as well as education—which is critical to sustained, inclusive economic growth and self-reliance. Investments in effective health systems are key to averting major health shocks that drain countries’ economies and are critical to promoting economic growth. 

USAID Adapts to COVID-19

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on USAID’s development programs around the world. But, our work has not stopped. In Central Asia, we are building on our successes and reaffirming the partnerships that we have forged over the last 25 years to fight the pandemic.

Despite the countless hardships caused by the pandemic—from increased unemployment and global economic decline, to the death of health workers on the front line—we can use this time to help our partner countries become more resilient to future shocks. Not just in health, but in all areas of development including democracy and governance, economic growth, and trade. 

I’m pleased to see that Dr. Cohen and Mr. Grant highlight this very point in the conclusion of their report.

And this is precisely USAID’s approach. We are adapting our programs across development sectors to overcome the challenges brought to life by the pandemic. 

Importantly, we are strengthening our partner countries’ capacity to withstand future shocks, ultimately helping them strengthen their resilience and become self-reliant. We define this as the day when foreign assistance is no longer needed.

I’ll share a few examples. In Kyrgyzstan, we are building on our success fighting tuberculosis to strengthen the country’s resilience to health shocks. Until recently, the country did not have an automated IT system for real-time test results and data sharing. This made it difficult for the government to stay ahead of the epidemic. 

In response, USAID upgraded the laboratory information management system—which was developed a few years ago for TB—so that it includes COVID-19 testing. Now, the system can rapidly disseminate accurate information to healthcare providers. These upgrades have already been installed in all 12 of Kyrgyzstan's labs that test for COVID-19. 

In Tajikistan, we partnered with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry to establish a trade information hotline that’s helping Tajik importers and exporters navigate restrictions caused by the pandemic so that they can continue their operations.

In Central Asia, trolls and bots are spreading dangerous disinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic. To counter disinformation, USAID recently organized a virtual, regional press conference with 46 Central Asia media outlets to share how the United States is helping to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Numerous Russian- and English-language media outlets reported on the conference, spreading accurate information on the United States Government’s COVID-19 response efforts across the region. These efforts are building resilience to counter malign influences over the long-term.

In Kazakhstan, USAID is building greater transparency and trust in the judicial system. When court proceedings moved online due to COVID-19-related restrictions, journalists were unable to cover high-profile, public-interest cases. 

In response, USAID supported the development of a simple process to enable journalists to access the online court hearings. The Supreme Court of Kazakhstan adopted the process, and now, journalists have access to online court hearings across the country.

These are just a few examples of how we are working to ensure that Central Asia’s hard-won development gains are not diminished due to COVID-19, but that they are used to further strengthen the region’s resilience.

Closing and Looking Ahead

It is critical that we continue to be nimble, that we continue to adapt to realities on the ground, and that we continue to work together to build a stronger, more independent, and more prosperous Central Asia. Not just in the short-term, but for years to come.

The actions we take today will impact the region’s post-COVID-19 recovery and long-term development.

Thank you all again for having me, and I look forward to today’s discussion.

Last updated: July 16, 2020

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