In November 2013, we met with our partners in Kyrgyzstan to plan the start-up of a new World Bank-funded grant on social cohesion. This exciting project aims to study how a participatory approach to development influences the cohesion of a community.

The term ‘social cohesion’ refers to the process of strengthening communities so people can work together to resolve shared challenges in a way that promotes a sense of trust, peace, and security.

Understanding how this works in the Kyrgyz Republic is especially important today. In 2010 a wave of violence erupted in the southern part of the country following presidential elections. Since then, the Aga Khan Foundation has explored ways to analyze and boost cohesion among multi-ethnic communities. By partnering with the World Bank, we hope to better understand and measure how local participation and community engagement affect social cohesion. This project also aims to catalyze local capacity for research. See the press release for background on the project.

During our visit to the southern Osh province, we drove through city streets where the 2010 unrest took place. Working toward social cohesion and pluralism in the Central Asia region is not new for AKF. In surrounding rural areas, we saw some of the work the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme (MSDSP) has been doing in the area. MSDSP, an AKF affiliate, has been working in southern Kyrgyzstan for over a decade, focusing on sustainable community development fueled by local involvement. By encouraging participatory planning on how to allocate public resources, MSDSP creates spaces for civil society to interact with local government. By examining these kinds of initiatives through an analytical lens, this new project aims to capture and share how and if such methods of participatory planning actually strengthen social cohesion in local communities.

In southern Kyrgyzstan, we had the opportunity to meet with a working group representing hundreds of families from Kabyk in Chong-Alai district. The group had been trained by MSDSP to develop district development plans. To create the development plans, all the people from the village come together to determine their priority needs and decide how best to manage common resources in the interests of the community as a whole. As we talked with the group, we learned that the people of Kabyk collectively decided to focus on setting up a kindergarten. There was a strong sense that access to quality early childhood education would benefit the town’s hundreds of families in the long term.

The fact that early education is a top priority – even when the nearest water source is over a mile away – speaks volumes about the community’s sense of the future. Cholpon Eje, the project leader and director of the kindergarten, told us that running a community kindergarten has been a dream of hers for 20 years.

The new kindergarten is being built in a former local government office. As the classrooms started to take shape, the group’s leaders explained how the local people invested time and resources to create the kindergarten. The project cost $12,400. MSDSP arranged for two-thirds of the funds, about $700 came from the local government, and nearly one-third came from the community. The 40 group members, including 13 women, raised those funds by going door to door, explaining how the kindergarten benefited everyone. While there is now a building, teachers and staff must be paid and materials purchased. Each student’s family pays a small fee per child. At AKF USA, we call this local pooling of resources and energy an example of community philanthropy.

The planning process, as developed by MSDSP, brings civil society and local government officials together to jointly determine the community’s development priorities.

Likewise the new World Bank grant will bring communities together, providing an opportunity to learn to what extent these approaches to community-led development affect social cohesion, especially in post-conflict, multi-ethnic communities.

Over the next four years, Aga Khan Foundation and its partners, including the University of Central Asia and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, look forward to learning more about the impact of MSDSP’s participatory approach across Kyrgyzstan and sharing the findings of the research along the way.

By Natalie Ross, Program Officer, and David Taylor, Communications Officer at the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A.