How Does Age Matter in Development Work in Kyrgyzstan?

by Jeanne Féaux de la Croix

Baktygul is twenty-five years old, and works for one of the 11.000 NGOs that are registered in Kyrgyzstan. She often visits villages around the country to conduct seminars on how communities can work together in a productive, peaceful way. But she is not very comfortable in her role as a ‘trainer’. As we drink tea in her Bishkek office, she tells me:

‘When we do seminars, I feel people look at me and think “why is a young thing like you teaching me”? But they don’t say this directly. We try not to say “you have something to learn”, instead we say “let’s share our experiences together”. People wonder who has sent you. They think you’re maybe an assistant (pomoshchnik). They don’t accept you as a trainer, or are surprised you’re the trainer. They give me these severe looks at first, thinking that I can’t be useful for them.’

How exactly does it matter in this situation whether you are a younger or older person? Does it mean that the ideas Baktygul tries to teach will not be accepted? Usually, Kyrgyz people feel they are different from Europeans in the way that they pay respect to older people. At the same time, it is often more difficult for older people to find work. One sometimes hears the prejudice that people over 40 have a ‘Soviet mentality’. Of course this comment is never meant as a compliment.

Baktygul is one of the many well-educated young Kyrgyz who work in the development sector. They usually speak excellent Russian and often know English or another foreign language too. They are also often women. Working for an NGO can be a rewarding job, as you try to improve life in Kyrgyzstan, and probably also get a decent salary. At the  same time, you usually work long hours and have less job security than in a government job, for example. These young Kyrgyz become the real interpreters of NGO and government policies, when they hold ‘trainingi’ for the wider population. This means that they have a very important, and very difficult role. But their work is rarely seen as central, because they do not wield a lot of official power. They also do not fit the idea of ‘Western’ donors on the one hand, and ‘Kyrgyzstani’ organizations and people on the other: usually, they are representing or working with both. It is not surprising then that despite Baktygul’s best efforts, the people she runs ‘trainingi’ for, are not always sure what kind of ‘animal’ she is.

Young NGO workers also learn a way of teaching that is quite different from what  they, or villagers experience at home, at school or university. Baktygul does not hold a lecture, telling people what to do and asking them to write it down. She tries to get people to share experiences, to discuss problems with each other and to find solutions together. Of course, among her audience there are people who have much more authority than others, so the ideal of listening to each other on an equal footing can be difficult to realize. But for most NGO ‘trainingi’, this way of teaching is part of how they want society to become. Sometimes, ‘traineri’ like Baktygul make the experience that people are disappointed and go away saying ‘why should we take part in this, there is nothing useful for us here.’ But other people appreciate very much that they are valued as people who know many valuable things, for example how to keep pastures healthy, or how to solve conflicts in the village.

There are many different kinds of ‘experts’ who make recommendations about how life could become better in Kyrgyzstan. This was already the case in the Soviet era, when agronomists and inspectors visited kolkhozes and sovkhozes. As any Kyrgyzstani can see on televised debates, these experts actually often disagree. So how can people know if the knowledge somebody like Baktygul tries to give you is good and useful for you? Nowadays, people can also be a bit distrustful of Kyrgyz dawatchis, who try to bring people to a new way of practicing Islam. Like with NGO-workers, rural inhabitants are not sure where these young people are coming from, where they get their information or the money to spread this information. So for somebody like Baktygul, there are many tensions that she has to resolve in her work. Her example shows that sometimes how old you are is even more important than whether you are a woman or a man. Age matters in Kyrgyzstan and organizations trying to help people and change society, whether they are Kyrgyz NGOs or international donors, would do well to pay more attention to this factor.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Jeanne Féaux de la Croix has been working as an anthropologist in Central Asia since 2006. She completed her PhD in 2010 at the University of St. Andrews on Moral Geographies in Kyrgyzstan: how pastures, dams and holy sites matter in striving for a good life’. She is currently publishing on the subjects of water, resource distribution and notions of work in Kyrgyzstan. Her current project at Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin explores the age factor in knowledge-making and development projects in Kyrgyzstan. She is also involved in a Soros research and teaching programme on Sovietness in Everyday Life and serves on the board of the Central Eurasia Scholars and Media Initiative.