This post is the first in a series that will be focusing on local capacity and regional change in Tajikistan. In 2014, the Aga Khan Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a Global Development Alliance entitled Economic and Social Connections: A Multi-Input Area Development Financing Facility for Tajikistan (ESCoMIAD). The Alliance promotes sustained improvements in the quality of life for people living along the Tajik border with Afghanistan. 

In the mountains and plains of Tajikistan, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) through its Mountain Societies Development Support Programme (MSDSP) is helping to revive local governance as an active and responsive proponent of development. The idea behind AKF programs such as Economic and Social Connections: Multi-Input Area Development (ESCoMIAD) is that mobilizing communities around improved local governance, informal savings and credit mechanisms, and business activities can fertilize a larger economic growth.

Even for such national programs, initiatives start at the grassroots. So ESCoMIAD fosters local-level organization by revitalizing a system of governance structures – mahalla committees – with deep roots, through tools and approaches that amplify community voices and enable self-directed development.

Launched in 2014 as a partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development to energize social and economic development in Tajikistan, ESCoMIAD promotes sustained improvements in the quality of life for people living along the Tajik border with Afghanistan. Of the $12 million that partners contribute to the alliance, $5 million will ultimately be invested in private enterprises. Expansion into Jaihun, Panj, Farkhor and Hamadoni districts of southern Khatlon province is rooted in 90 mahalla committees, representing 140,000 people.

Mahallas as village-level, local governance structures date back to the early 1900s. Generations of Tajiks from the Soviet era on have participated in mahalla meetings to express their views on local challenges and needs. But as engines of development, they had limitations. So for 20 years MSDSP has been helping to grow the capacity of mahalla committees to identify and act on local priorities.

In working with mahalla committees, MSDSP helps villagers envision a future by setting out goals and establishing representative leadership structures. A complementary system for meeting and taking action, with protocols such as meeting records, provides the transparency and accountability critical for building and maintaining trust. Once up and running, groups are registered with the Tajik government, providing them with the authority to drive development. In this process, too, MSDSP supports each group to grow its capacity for talking openly about community challenges, priorities and plans.

“The process gives community members a voice,” says Ghulomsho Lutfaliev, Technical Expert for Participatory Governance with MSDSP. “And it looks at vulnerable segments of the community – for example youth, women and the elderly – to make sure their voices are heard.”

The village development planning process results in a local development plan. Across Khatlon, communities share many top challenges as their priority: access to clean water and sanitation facilities, and accessing reliable and affordable electricity. These often involve large investments beyond the scale of the small-scale community investments that ESCoMIAD makes (up to $4,000 each). Through the village development plans, communities can source their own funds for development, and gain support from outside sources, including MSDSP.

Mahalla governance structures also provide for sub-committees to serve segments such as women’s groups.

ESCoMIAD has strengthened these local structures while also funding micro-development projects that address local priorities. The projects build infrastructure from establishing greenhouses for food production, to the purchase of farm equipment to construction of bridges for accessing markets. More importantly, the projects also build capacity to articulate the importance of needs, plan for executing projects, and leveraging these improvements to increase income generated for further development.

So far, ESCoMIAD is implementing an initial 12 such projects, with another 18 to come. More importantly the program is breathing vitality and greater responsiveness into the local governance system, generating ideas, and providing institutions for people to determine and act upon their needs, which they know best, to improve their quality of life.

The next installment in this series will look at how communities are pooling savings to increase access to credit and empower women in the home and within their communities.

Pictured above: To boost rural incomes and food production, the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme works with farmers in Tajikistan to build and use greenhouses as part of increase food security and income generation. Such projects build local capacity and contribute to local priorities. (Credit: AKDN)