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OPINION January 17, 2019

Tajikistan: Towards the Next Level of Development

Today, Tajikistan finds itself at a juncture, where—with the right decisions taken—it could step onto a path of rapid socio-economic development, dynamic rates of inclusive growth, and significantly improved economic perspectives for its citizens. Many “foundational” investments, some with World Bank support, have been realized, not least those linked to the modernization of the country’s infrastructure and legal-institutional superstructure, allowing for a more effective delivery of public and social services. However, given the substantial changes that have occurred over the last 25 years, and which have built Tajikistan’s economy, policies that used to be appropriate in the past may no longer be effective in the future. Economic policy challenges have moved from a state-led focus on public infrastructure to the encouragement of private-sector initiative, investment, and innovation.

Throughout its history, Tajikistan has had to respond to a myriad of existential threats, from the civil war to increased politico-economic isolation along borders closed for reasons of politics and/or conflict, the global financial and economic crisis after 2008, or the sharp fall in prices of primary commodities after 2014. It was bequeathed an economic model that had collapsed under the weight of inefficiencies, amplified by a history that—with the demarcation of the Russian-Afghan border in 1895—had placed Tajikistan at the periphery of a larger state entity bereft of its economic base and home markets.

Still, Tajikistan has proven resilient, as reflected in impressive average annual growth rates of 7.3 percent during the post-conflict years. As a result, per capita income during 1998–2017 increased, net of effects from inflation, by more than 160 percent. There has been impressive success in resolving the winter shortages in energy supply, while—in many parts of the country—citizens benefit from tangibly improved water and transport services.

For the last quarter century (that is, for most of Tajikistan’s post-independence history), the World Bank Group has been privileged to support efforts to place the country’s economy on a sound footing and develop the foundation for a socio-economic (professional) perspective for the citizens of Tajikistan. It has done so through all three periods of the country’s development, from the civil war period to reconstruction and the responses to the various economic shocks affecting the country after 2008.

The Silver Anniversary of the collaboration between Tajikistan and the World Bank Group falls on the eve of a new era, with an opportunity for real, sustainable socio-economic transformation, a different set of challenges, and the need to adjust economic and development policies to a new environment. Rather than focusing on a domestic market of 9 million—mostly low-income—clients, which has proven too small a market for competition and sustained private-sector development, Tajikistan-based companies have the opportunity to access hundreds of millions of potential clients in the immediate neighborhood in South, Eastern, and Central Asia. All commodities and services, for which Tajikistan has a comparative advantage, whether it is food products, energy, minerals, cotton, textiles, or IT-based services, have deep markets nearby.

Already, Tajikistan is investing considerable national wealth to improve regional (or, rather, continental) connectivity and establish a stable export base, starting in energy. To be able to reap the full benefits inherent in very ambitious investments in energy generation and transmission, the country needs to pay particular attention to (i) investing in people (and preparing its mostly young citizens for the opportunities ahead); (ii) increasing the efficiency of (public) institutions; and (iii) providing the private sector with an environment that translates the opportunities into entrepreneurs’ confidence that private investments will result in improved productivity, company growth, and increased profits.

The inherent result of Tajikistan’s current remittance-financed, import-reliant economic model is a narrow private sector, with binding constraints to production, logistics, and innovation. If well-understood, the current economic structure might prove a “blessing in disguise” during a period in which there is high “in principle” demand for products and services “made in Tajikistan”. If economic policies are adjusted, with a view to permitting entrepreneurs and investors to develop sufficient trust in institutions and confidence in the future, they would complement public investments with private investments of the scale, scope, and quality to foster innovation, increase productivity of key sectors of Tajikistan’s economy, and increase wages and employment opportunities. By encouraging the private sector to import up-to-date technology, install modern equipment, and implement the highest standards, Tajikistan’s economy would be competitive, export-oriented, and provide profit opportunities for enterprises, irrespective of ownership.

As argued in the World Bank’s (2008) Growth Report, “economic miracles” are a misnomer. Dynamic rates of sustained and inclusive growth can be generated, as other countries have done before, by committed, credible, and capable governments that maintain macro-fiscal stability and allow the private sector to exploit opportunities in the world economy, support high rates of saving and investment, and permit markets to allocate resources. May Tajikistan, by the time of the Golden Anniversary of World Bank Group partnership, have shown the vision, courage, and determination to be included among the élite group of countries that have managed to transform their economies, and invest, innovate, and guarantee growth and prosperity to their people.