TALDIKORGAN – Standing outside in the winter cold, Slava Kim knows how to close a deal. "The apples here are famous. The best in Kazakhstan", 26-year-old Slava Kim boasted outside Taldikorgan's bustling fruit and vegetable market, provincial capital of Kazakhstan's southeastern Almaty province, which takes its name from the fruit.
Despite his enthusiastic sales pitch, the apples, renowned for their variety and taste, never make their way to the country's commercial capital and largest market, Almaty, just 270 km to the southeast, much less the rest of the vast Central Asian nation of 15 million. In fact, most fruit and vegetables come from South Kazakhstan or are imported from neighboring Uzbekistan. "I only sell my apples here", Kim conceded, admitting little understanding of market economics.
It is this lack of local capacity that the International Labour Organization (ILO), in collaboration with local authorities and an NGO on the ground, are working to address in 2005.
From apples to advocacy
In addition to apples, the region has strong potential in other areas of agriculture, as well as animal husbandry. As part of a US $2 million initiative by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) to boost the capacity of institutions dealing with employment issues – particularly among youth – in Azerbajian, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the ILO has targeted three areas in Taldikorgan, including vocational training, regional promotion and the introduction of modern cooperative principles. "We want to revitalize the local economy with the aim of creating new jobs, generating income in the process", Geert van Boekel, the ILO's regional adviser on local economic development (LED) and cooperatives, maintained.
Problems faced by the region were not dissimilar to those faced by countries in eastern and central Europe, he said, where access to finance and the markets had also proved difficult. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the region's agricultural infrastructure went through huge changes. These affected the area's once thriving apple processing facility, ILO national coordinator in Almaty, Saule Kudekova, explained. Although privatized, the processing facility failed under the new demands of a market economy and local capacity diminished. As in many countries of the former Soviet Union, the reluctance of people to work together after years of collective farming forced added to the problems facing new privatized enterprises.
That reality is now changing. Farmers like Kim are coming to understand they can't compete alone. In many rural areas, in fact, villagers are already coming together to bring their products to the market. Yet even when farmers do join forces, they still lack the necessary skills to compete in today's market economy. Farms must be viewed as a company if it is to be competitive, van Boekel observed, with education proving a vital component. Many students graduating from vocational schools in the area found it difficult to find jobs due to inadequate skills and qualifications. As in many such schools in the former Soviet Union, such institutions continued to teach things no longer relevant to today's market economy, the ILO official candidly observed, adding: "There is no compliance with the real demand of the labour market and the supply of the labour force". But vocational training was just part of the equation. A concerted effort was essential to promote and market the strengths of the region. "If you want to increase your production, you have to promote what you do. People should know what their potential is", van Boekel says.
As part of that effort, the ILO is assisting local authorities to develop new promotion material (web pages, brochures, investment guides, etc.), under its framework for a comprehensive regional promotional strategy, making use of commercial offices of foreign embassies in Almaty and Astana, the country's new capital, as well as the commercial sections of Kazakh embassies abroad. "By focusing on the production of specific concrete products, such as investment guides, the ILO could create an impact fairly soon in the lifetime of the product", van Boekel says, adding that "regional promotion touches upon a variety of different aspects as well as skills, including strategic development, project writing, monitoring and evaluation, tourism and handicraft promotion, that could be brought under the attention of this local economic development project", he explained, emphasizing the importance of a regional development forum". "This is important as we hope this forum will take over our role in terms of regional promotion and development, once the project stops."
As a third component, the ILO also wants to introduce modern cooperative principles in agriculture production. With around 70 per cent of the population working in agriculture, the benefits for Taldikorgan could be immense. "We want to promote the organization of production and make it efficient and competitive", van Boekel said, explaining the problem was not so much quality as quantity. "They need to boost their capacity. We need to open people's eyes to the potential, but also the possible risks if they don't."
Fortunately, local authorities in the area are already doing just that. "By sharing international experience, this is a real opportunity to develop the potential of this region", Nurila Bukekbayeva, head of Almaty's provincial department for labour and social security, noted in her office in Taldikorgan. "People's mentalities over the past year have changed and now they need new skills." Zholtai Baltabekov, director of the department of rural sectors for Almaty province, agrees, citing the lack of processing plants, for vegetable, meat and dairy products in the area. "Because of the lack of processing plants, people are not interested in producing more", Baltabekov said, adding these were one of the issues they were now striving to address, with two processing plants now in the planning process for the region. As part of its efforts, the ILO will also bring in expertise from other countries in the region of positive, successful (agricultural) association building; seminars that will be open to all interested parties in the project region.
Meanwhile, the ILO's van Boekel is already setting his sights on the future, hoping to see tangible results in the first quarter of 2005. If successful, the experiences, processes and mechanisms of the three pilot areas could very well be replicated – perhaps even nationwide. "We are trying to build a consensus between the public and private sector as well as civil society", he said, ensuring that events launched within the framework of the project were supported by a broad local platform. The project activities would ideally become part of the normal working routine of local institutions, he added.
Note 1 - See Report of the Director-General to the Seventh European Regional Meeting, vol. 1, ILO activities 2001-2004, Cooperation in a changing environment.