Prague, 22 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. assistance to Central Asia jumped following 11 September 2001 and the subsequent U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Although aid has begun to taper down since 2003, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Kent Hill, says the region remains a high priority for the United States.
"Political decisions are only going to come as a result of political pressure from outside."
Hill is assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia at USAID, the government agency that administers U.S. economic and humanitarian assistance programs and handles about 70 percent of the $130 million in nonmilitary U.S. aid in Central Asia.
"There will be some budgetary pressures, perhaps, to bring down the amount some, because there's a lot of expenses related to Iraq and Afghanistan. But we're going to be engaged with the governments and the peoples of Central Asia for many years to come," Hill said.
Of the five Central Asian nations, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan received the most U.S. assistance this year -- $36 million each.
Aid to oil-rich Kazakhstan has already begun scaling back, with a 35 percent drop to $28 million. The republic will soon be under consideration for a timetable to phase out economic assistance altogether.
"We had discussions in Kazakhstan with a process whereby the government within the next few years would gradually take on a larger and larger percentage of the costs of the portfolio dealing with economic reform. Whereas in social areas like HIV/AIDS we might try to continue our efforts at a little higher level," Hill said.
Turkmenistan, the most repressive state in the region, is also experiencing reductions in support over 2003-2005 to just $6 million.
Assistance levels to Tajikistan during 2003-2005 were relatively steady at about $25 million per year.
Hill says the central focus of USAID assistance is to assist in the economic reform process and to establish an environment that promotes growth.
"A fairly large part of the portfolio of USAID is designed to spur economic development by helping small and medium[-sized] enterprises gain hold, and to try to get more capital available for [them] to get started. We've tried to work with the governments to suggest changes they might make that would stimulate the economy," Hill said.
Hill says the challenges that most concern USAID assistance programs in the region include democracy and governance -- rule of law, civil society, political processes, independent media, and local governance.
HIV/AIDS, unemployment, corruption, and human trafficking are also issues of USAID concern.
USAID is emphasizing mother-and-child health care as well as family planning and reproductive health. Infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis will be targeted in those countries where they are the most virulent.
"We are very concerned about the spread of HIV/AIDS and we work on programs to deal with [it], and in the area of countering tuberculosis. And also we have a general policy that we try to help health programs move to more primary care so that they have clinics to deal with primary care as opposed to just hospitalization," Hill said.
David Lewis runs the Brussels-based International Crisis Group's Central Asia project from Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan. He says the biggest challenges in Central Asia concern high-level political engagement rather than low-level development projects.
"Many of the issues are political, such as border management or opening up economies. Political decisions are only going to come as a result of political pressure from outside. The aid work that Western governments do tends to focus on technical assistance [and] small-scale development, which is very useful. But [it] is not answering the big questions that are being asked in Central Asia at the moment," Lewis said.
Lewis notes that the international community has long urged political and economic reform in Uzbekistan, with little success. He says it is time to reduce lending and assistance to the government, while putting sufficient pressure on President Islam Karimov to reform his country.