Yesterday, I had the honor of speaking at UNICEF’s conference, “Human Capital: Has the Time Come to Invest in Children?” The answer is, in brief, YES.

Some 800,000 children live in poverty in the Kyrgyz Republic – most often, these are the children of single-parents, of families with 4 or more children, and of families from certain regions of the country (Batken, in particular, has a high child poverty rate). Though the Kyrgyz Republic’s social welfare system is supposed to eliminate child poverty, 25% – 37.5% of children in poverty receive no support from the government (no one knows the exact rate of coverage; the above statistics come fro the Minister of Labor and Social Development).

Poverty is only a small part of the problem. Upwards of 80% of parents regularly engage in behaviors that, under international standards, constitute child abuse and neglect. Some 28% of children report being hit or kicked by their parents – actions that parents often see as a discipline strategy. More broadly, adults regularly yell at and reprimand children for minor mistakes or simple actions: no running, no jumping, no touching. As one colleague explained when reflecting on her childhood, “The way we’re raised, it makes you careful as an adult. If you’ve never seen a buffet before, you’re afraid to try it. Because your first thought is, ‘What if I get yelled at? What if I embarrass myself? If you don’t have express permission to do something, you don’t do it.'” From a human capital perspective, such norms do not seem conducive to a creative, dynamic economy. A core question for Kyrgyzstan’s leaders and citizenry alike is thus exactly what type of society they are trying to build for the future – and whether these child-rearing practices will allow that future to unfold.

Below are included my full remarks from the conference, discussing why investing in Kyrgyzstan’s families is an urgent priority in the here and now. Thank you to Gulsana Turusbekova, UNICEF Kyrgyz Republic’s Social Policy Specialist, for organizing this event and launching the conversation.

Investing in the Human Capital of Children Most in Need

24 – May – 2019

It is easy, sitting here today, to think of children’s “human capital” as an abstract issue – to boil it all down to some kind of policy, which will be written in a document, which may or may not be implemented in some way. And then what? If we succeed in investing in Kyrgyzstan’s children, the national economic effects will be felt 20 years from now. And if we fail to invest in Kyrgyzstan’s children, the national economic effects be felt 20 years from now. That’s a long time away.

But I am here to say that this in not about 2040. Or at least, this is not only about 2040. This is about children and parents who are struggling now, in 2019. Children and parents who desperately need help but are not getting that help – not from one another, not from their communities, not from businesses, not from the government. This is about creating the conditions for those families to thrive now, in the present, so that their members have the intellectual, emotional, moral, and physical health to build a prosperous nation starting from today – and extending well past 2040.

We have already heard that 32% of Kyrgyzstan’s children live in poverty. I’d like to make this statistic more personal. I’m going to do this by telling you about three children in my life. The first two are the sons of one of my relatives. They are both younger than 10 and live with their mother. She is divorced, cares for the boys alone, and works more than 12 hours a day as a seamstress. Often her clients don’t pay. Once, she tried to go to court to get a client to pay for his order, but that client was much wealthier than she is and she lost the case.

Her two boys go back and forth from her household to her ex-husband’s – no one has the money to keep them beyond a few months. And given their constant moving from village to city and back, the boys have never been to preschool or school. The older son, Nurlan, cannot count past 10. He does not recognize written numbers. How could he? His mom has no time to teach him, he has no access to school. When this child does eventually enter school, how well will he be able to learn? And when this child turns 20, what will he be able to contribute to Kyrgyzstan?

Improving this boy’s human capital is an urgent priority, not just for the future but for the immediate present. It is only by addressing the present that the future can become better. At a minimum, these solutions require improving the school system. But notice that in Nurlan’s case, that would make no difference – his family is struggling too much to even put him in school.

Investing in Nurlan’s human capital – and the human capital of thousands of other children like him – requires putting in place social support system that could help his mother, who lives in poverty despite her full-time work. It is about fixing the justice system, a system where the wealth of the litigants is more important than the existence of a legitimate contract. It is about creating fair institutions oriented toward lifting the population up rather than blocking them with bureaucratic barriers.

I want to repeat that: to create a thriving population, government institutions should lift the citizenry up rather than put it down. As Harvard economist Claudia Golden has noted, “the ability of nations to foster human capital accumulation depends on the existence of enabling institutions.” As we consider how the Kyrgyz Republic can build the human capital of its children, we must think of this challenge as one that faces the full governmental system – not as one that is the isolated responsibility of a ministry or two – and we must fundamentally rethink the role of the government. If we want to build human capital, it is not about controlling the population. It is about enabling the population.

The next child I would like to tell you about is one I met only this past weekend. My NGO was hosting an iftar meal for around 300 people, along with games for children. One child stood out – he was frightened. He wasn’t playing. The other boys started to strangle him and left him, crying and gulping for breath, on a bench as they went of to join the tug-of-war (arkan tartysh). What happened? “My family is poor,” he explained to our volunteers, “the older boys beat me up just because they can. My parents can’t do anything about it,” he said.

Being poor subjects children to cascades of discrimination, violence, and disadvantage. You may be tempted to laugh it off, to say that incidents like this toughen a boy up. But if you want to produce a generation of capable, motivated, and skilled workers, then making them accustomed to violence is not a good method. Worldwide, children who are bullied significantly underperform non-bullied children on math and reading tests. Indeed, the negative impact of bullying on academic performance is greater even than a that of the educational backgrounds of a student’s teachers and parents (!). Children who are poor are more likely to be bullied, and bullied children tend to grow up to be less productive employees, repeating a vicious cycle of linked poverty and violence – not only in their own lives, but for their nations as a whole.

I raise this second example to say that government institutions and policies are not enough. At the end of the day, we each have a personal responsibility to lift one another up. Think about what that child said – that because his parents are poor, other children can beat him. What kind of a society do we live in if 10-year-olds are taught that it is acceptable to hurt others because they are poor? And how could a society that teaches such values become prosperous, given that violence is well recognized to impede academic performance and job success?

I’d like to end by reiterating the three main messages from this talk:

  1. First, it is imperative to recognize that this is not a challenge for the future, but an urgent priority for the present. Children and families living in poverty are in desperate need of support, and it is only by giving them that support now that the a better future can be achieved;
  2. Second, the task of alleviating child poverty and improving youth’s human capital requires a coordinated effort across government agencies, as well as across all levels of government – local, district, regional, and national. The socio-economic problems underlying these challenges cut across departments and titles, and must be addressed by cross-cutting solutions;
  3. Third and finally, we all have the capacity to improve children’s human capital in our everyday actions. When you catch yourself yelling at someone weaker than you – stop yourself. When you see a child being bullied or beaten – intervene. You will not only be improving the life of someone who needs your help, you will also be contributing to the development of your nation.

Thank you.