Aid to Uzbekistan Should Not Help Forced Child Labor

This month, the government of Uzbekistan submitted a request for $49.9 million to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), a coalition that pools donor funds to strengthen education in developing countries.

The proposal has a few technical problems. It accurately identifies the need to increase preschool access for children three to five years old, yet the investment requested is large compared to the forecasted results. Furthermore, the proposed development of children’s books for family reading programs in only the Karakalpak, Russian, and Uzbek languages represents continued marginalization of the significant Tajik minority.

There are other reasons for the GPE to be cautious about the grant application. Uzbekistan has an abysmal human rights record, which includes the use of forced child and adult labor in the cotton fields under dangerous and inhumane conditions. Until the fall of 2012, the Uzbek government routinely mobilized hundreds of thousands of elementary, secondary and university students (as well as many adults) to pick cotton, closing schools for up to two months each year. 

Under mounting international pressure, the government of Uzbekistan ordered that elementary school students not be sent to pick cotton; instead, greater numbers of older children and adults were mobilized, including many teachers and school staff.  Although elementary school students were in class during the harvest, in many places, their teachers were in the fields. 

Even if children are not directly involved in the harvest, they face dangers in the cotton fields. At least three children have died this year, among them a six-year-old who was smothered when cotton was dumped into a wagon where he was sleeping while his mother was forced to work in the harvest.

Uzbekistan’s state budget is so opaque that it is impossible to know where the revenues from the country’s exports like cotton end up.  Transparency International ranks Uzbekistan 170 out of 176 countries for corruption. It is widely rumored that state assets are kept in a hard currency account accessible to only the ruling family, who are notorious for their ruthless repression of dissent and their lavish taste for the finer things in life.

Applying for international development assistance while state revenue is used for private benefit and repression is bad enough. Asking to use that assistance for education when students and teachers are routinely required to leave schools and universities to work as forced laborers is indefensible.

Civil society groups have mobilized to call attention to these issues in the hope of informing the GPE’s discussion of the government of Uzbekistan’s application. In a letter to the GPE, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, writes: “Given the extent to which state-run forced labor and education systems are intertwined, it is likely that some portion of the funds granted will be used to fuel forced child labor if these considerations are not taken into account in project implementation. This is unacceptable.”

Applications from corrupt, repressive governments to aid frameworks like the GPE are hardly limited to Uzbekistan. As the world moves forward with a post-2015 development agenda and the funding mechanisms to support its goals, it is important to find a balance between supporting social and economic rights in the face of great need and holding governments accountable to their citizens.  Most discussions of corruption and global development aid focus on transparent accounting and procurement norms, the way that development projects operate, and the safeguards in place to ensure that governments spend direct budget support for the intended purposes. Development assistance projects must go beyond simple transparency to support just and equitable development and above all, ensure that they do not indirectly support corrupt practices or rights violations.

Post-2015 development goals should reinforce and protect the full range of human rights. The robust voices of civil society at all levels are essential to securing a rights-based approach to development, not just in rhetoric but in implementation. Doing so involves holding donors and pooled funds like the GPE accountable for ensuring that concerns about corruption and human rights violations are considered alongside governments’ funding applications.

1 Comment

This is a great piece because it raises a critical point of how big donors should operate in such hostile environments as Uzbekistan. While many of them dislike conditionality in aid disbursement for its political ramifications, it may be the only tool to ensure that external funding does not benefit these regimes or fuel pernicious practices (e.g. child labor and hidden ethnic discrimination in Uzbekistan). In this regard, donors need to use a rights-based approach prior to awarding a grant to identify problems, which run counter to their approach, determine specific actions and timelines for tangible improvements (not mere laws and regulations that authoritarian governments are so good at promulgating), allow verification of these achievements by outsiders, and then offer the first cycle of funding. The process should be repeated for subsequent cycles. If there are signs of initial resistance or regress at a later stage, it may make more sense for donors to settle down on some triage measures in a particular sector or discontinue funding altogether.

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