Thursday, December 25, 2008

Poverty in Tajikistan: shortage of remittences

NYTimes December 25, 2008
Bad Times Stall Cash Flow From Tajik Migrants

TOSH-TEPPA, Tajikistan — In poverty-stricken Tajikistan, the global financial crisis is measured in bags of flour.

At least that is how Bibisoro Sayidova sees it, as she looks for ways to feed her five children, since her husband, a migrant worker in Russia, stopped receiving his wages this fall. Now he is loading large sacks of dried fruit in Moscow on faith.

“Sometimes I cry when the kids don’t have socks or coats,” she said, mixing a stew of water, bread, onion and oil. “We’re still hoping he’ll get paid.”

The financial crisis that is in full swing in the world’s developed countries is only beginning to reach the poorest, and labor migrants, with feet in both worlds, are among the first to feel it.

Flows of migrant money to developing countries, known as remittances, began to slow this fall, the first moderation after years of double-digit growth, according to the World Bank. The slowdown is expected to turn into a decline of 1 to 5 percent in 2009, when the full effect of the crisis hits.

Some are already feeling it. Mexico, for example, is likely to have a 4 percent decline in the flows of migrant money in 2008, according to World Bank estimates. The biggest declines next year are expected in the Middle East and North Africa, because of economic slowdowns in the Persian Gulf and Europe.

“There’s definitely a serious moderation in the growth of remittances,” said Dilip Ratha, a senior economist at the World Bank who tracks migrant money flows.

The decline will be less severe than for other flows, like foreign investment, Mr. Ratha said, but its effects will be amplified in countries like Tajikistan that have come to depend on rapidly growing remittances. The country will rank first in the world in 2008 for remittances as a portion of its economy — 54 percent — according to an estimate by the International Monetary Fund.

“The Tajik economy is not sustainable without migration,” Mr. Ratha said. “It is not diversified. People are the most important resource they have.”

The reason dates to the Soviet collapse, when factories closed, subsidies from Moscow dried up and villages like Tosh-Teppa, 25 miles north of Afghanistan, were left to rot. More than 80 percent of the population lived under the poverty line of about $2 a day, and Tajiks began to export the only thing they had: themselves.

“The population has been completely abandoned by the state,” said Paul Quinn Judge, who runs the International Crisis Group’s Central Asian program. “When it comes to providing for basic needs — healthy drinking water, heat in winter — they are utterly failing.”

The money the migrants sent back was a lifeline. When Borun, a 42-year-old with a degree in agriculture, first went to work in Russia, a vicious civil war had just ended, and his family was eating corncobs to survive. When his two children came down with malaria, there was no money to take them to a hospital and they died after a local medical office gave them all that it had: aspirin and mosquito netting.

“We would have died without that money,” said his mother, Umiyavi, 59. Like many people interviewed for this article, Borun would not give his last name for fear the Russian authorities would refuse to let him back in to work.

When oil profits were high, workers from Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe poured into Russian cities, as many as 10 million by some estimates, making Russia the country with the second largest immigrant population, after the United States.

Like most Tajiks working in Russia — 700,000 to a million people — Borun worked in construction. It was one of the sectors hardest hit by the credit crunch and falling oil prices this fall. Borun’s wages for a job renovating the Lenin Museum in Moscow were delayed. In November his employer paid up, but then immediately fired him.

“They said those who came from abroad have to go,” he said, shivering in a thin jacket in his small house in Khodja-Durbod, a village near Tosh-Teppa. About 300 workers were fired, he said, mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Economists do not expect effects to be felt broadly in labor markets until well into next year, but the trend of booming remittances has clearly ended. In Tajikistan, remittances rose just 1 percent in November, compared with the same month last year, according to the I.M.F., down sharply from a record growth of about 90 percent early this year.

That has brought a quiet desperation into households like Ms. Sayidova’s. The area is missing so many men that it feels like wartime, and its daily allowance of four to six hours of electricity is the same as in Baghdad. Malnutrition is widespread. Unicef estimates that more than one-third of children are stunted. Ms. Sayidova’s 13-year-old son has the body of a 6-year-old.

Ms. Sayidova is part of a new generation of women who are less protected from poverty than their mothers. The Soviet Union required girls to finish high school, but since its collapse the number of girls who graduate has fallen by 12 percent. Ms. Sayidova dropped out and married at 14. She was ashamed to have to borrow money from her mother to buy winter clothes for her children and Vaseline for her hands.

Migrant money had offered a safety net. Roofs were built, houses expanded and the basic needs of a large portion of society provided for. In the years of the migrant boom, the portion of the population living in poverty fell by a third, to 50 percent. In Khodja-Durbod, a school was built on migrant money, with each family contributing $100 and 320 bricks. It is missing both a math teacher and a toilet, and its headmaster is concerned that with the crisis, it will not get either.

Still, migrants do not seem to be giving up and returning home, the biggest worry for Western governments that see large numbers of poor unemployed men just north of Afghanistan as a potential security risk. Instead, people interviewed over three days last week said they would dig in further to hold on to any chance for a job, particularly if the Russian authorities made good on threats to reduce their numbers.

Borun’s oldest son is an exception. He worked for a few months gathering scrap metal in Moscow when he was 16. The experience was so painful that he returned to Tajikistan and began riding his bicycle 13 miles every morning to a better school.

“He saw the way we lived, without respect,” Borun said bitterly. “He doesn’t want to be like his father.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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