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Central Asia: As World Marks Literacy Day, What Of USSR's Legacy?

On 8 September, the world marks International Literacy Day. First celebrated in 1966 under the patronage of UNESCO, the annual event is meant to focus attention on efforts worldwide to eradicate illiteracy and provide basic education to all. The former Soviet Union was once a leader in this field. But over the past decade, the education system in some of the USSR's successor states has come under strain. Money is short and advances made in previous decades risk coming undone.

Prague, 4 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For all its negative aspects, even die-hard opponents of the former Soviet regime acknowledge one unquestioned success of the USSR: providing universal, primary education to all children, regardless of income or residence.

From the remotest villages to the largest cities, all Soviet children learned to read and write. A significant portion went on to higher education.

While this may seem basic, as the world prepares to mark International Literacy Day on 8 September, experts say the Soviet achievement of near-total literacy required great effort and resources. It stands in contrast to the situation in many countries that once bordered the Soviet Union. And, unfortunately, some of the Soviet successor states are struggling to maintain past levels of achievement in education amid economic hardship.

Around the world, according to UNESCO -- the United Nations' educational, scientific, and cultural organization, which sponsors International Literacy Day -- an estimated 860 million adults cannot read or write. More than 100 million children have no access to formal education of any kind. That is why, since 1966, UNESCO has devoted 8 September to focusing on the importance of basic education and literacy to a country's future. Without an educated citizenry, UNESCO argues, a state faces little chance of improving its economy.

Despite its moribund economy, especially in later years, the Soviet Union invested heavily in education. Many of the independent states that emerged from the Soviet collapse are struggling to maintain this standard.

Central Asia is a case in point. Iveta Silova is an Almaty-based senior education adviser for USAID -- the U.S. Agency for International Development -- and the Open Society Institute. She says that in the economic crises that followed independence, the Central Asian states made significant cuts in their education budgets.

"If you look at the percentage of education spending and the percentage of GDP [gross domestic product] in Kazakhstan, it declined from 6 percent in 1989 to only 3 percent in 2000. And for example right now in Tajikistan, it's 2.3 percent and in Kyrgyzstan it's 3.7 percent -- whereas in all the other countries [in the world] that are doing relatively well, education spending as a percentage of GDP is from 4 to 6 percent. So it's a very big difference," Silova says.

Over the past decade, Silova says, the cuts in state spending on education in Central Asia have meant the near-elimination in many regions of programs that were once ubiquitous and considered key to fostering literacy.

"Right now, if you look at the whole Central Asian region, only 14 percent of all children are enrolled in preschool, whereas this number is 75 percent for Central Europe," Silova says.

Among older children, near-100 percent enrollment figures in primary schools have dropped, albeit less dramatically.

"It [enrollment] was in the high 90s at the beginning of the 1990s -- at the time when the Soviet Union broke up. And right now, for example, in Tajikistan it is 84 percent, which is a more than 10 percent decrease. In Uzbekistan it's 88 percent, and it's 89 percent in Kyrgyzstan -- that's for basic education grades one to nine," Silova says.

Although primary school continues to be free, some parents, especially in rural areas, cannot afford the new secondary costs associated with sending their children to study.

Komron Aliev, an independent Tashkent-based analyst, explains: "The problem is that there is not enough money to buy notebooks, there is not enough money to buy textbooks, there is not enough money for children's clothes. There are many poor families where the men have left to be migrant workers in other countries or they travel around this country in search of work. Their families are left in very difficult circumstances."

Aliyev says funding shortages also mean that in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, the teaching profession no longer attracts the best and the brightest.

"The teaching profession has completely lost its prestige. Men no longer go into the profession. This year, it seems, there has even been a shortage of applicants to the pedagogical institutes of higher learning," Aliyev says.

Although teachers in Soviet times never received more than average salaries, they did enjoy many subsidies that made life easier. That is no longer the case.

"Subsidies are being eliminated one after another, for various reasons," Aliyev says. "For example, teachers in rural areas had subsidized public transportation, they enjoyed subsidized utilities in urban housing. Earlier, rural areas were charged less for electricity. Rural areas offered [teachers] produce at low prices or for free. But practically all subsidies for teachers have now been eliminated."

Turkmenistan, according to Silova, has dropped the furthest in regional education rankings, thanks to its government's policies. Most children still learn to read and write, but chances at acquiring deeper knowledge have been severely curtailed.

"Turkmenistan really offers probably the most radical example of how things are going downhill with education, because education has been cut down to nine years only. There is no secondary school. Kids study only nine years and then university is only two years of academic work and two years of practical work," Silova says. "So basically, even if you go through all the education that's possible in Turkmenistan, you would only at best get 11 years of education and you would be considered to have a higher education degree."

Despite the discouraging news, some countries in the region are attempting to counter negative trends. Experts say resurrecting the all-encompassing Soviet education system is financially unviable. But smaller steps can be taken to ensure past advances in education are not squandered.

Uzbekistan has begun to fund school supplies for first-graders whose parents cannot afford them, to ensure as many children as possible enroll in primary school.

Alisher Rakhmonberdeyev, head of the Manizha Information and Education Center, a Dushanbe-based NGO, tells RFE/RL that decentralizing the education system, as Tajikistan has started doing, can ensure limited funds are spent where they are needed by local communities.

Rakhmonberdeyev says private schools, even in smaller towns and some rural areas, have opened in recent years. He says experience shows that these schools can provide quality primary education at affordable prices, relieving some of the pressure on overcrowded state institutions.

"When we conducted our research last year in seven regions, we asked local people whether they would send their children to private schools, if it were possible, even if fees were higher [than in state schools] . You know, a third of parents said they would like to send their children to such schools. Private-school fees in rural areas cost the equivalent of 2 to 2.5 dollars per month and many parents can afford this," Rakhmonberdeyev says.

Tajikistan has also begun to address the issue of girls leaving school prematurely -- a phenomenon that has grown in post-Soviet years. The government has launched an awareness campaign for parents, to encourage them to let their daughters finish their education.

"Certain steps are being taken to attract more girls to education. Whereas at the beginning, in primary school, the ratio of girls to boys is about one to one, meaning all girls are enrolled, after 9th grade, the ratio diminishes as some girls quit school," Rakhmonberdeyev says.

When compared to neighboring Afghanistan, whose illiteracy rate is estimated to be around 60 percent, Tajikistan's education system remains a model -- despite surviving a civil war and a near-total economic collapse. But compared to what some now call the "glory days" of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan and its fellow Central Asian neighbors face difficult times. Experts say they must do more if they are to maintain their place among the world's best-educated countries.

(Zamira Eshanova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and Sojida Djakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)