While planning and implementing an idea, most of us think about the direct consequences and results of these interventions, endeavors and efforts. In this sense, the Public Service Improvement (PSI) project, which began in 2015 and runs through 2025, is certainly no exception. After utilizing the project’s service improvement action plan methodology, 38 municipalities in Kyrgyzstan were better able to organize services for their local communities. These include the establishment of drinking water services, landscaping, municipal property management, preschool and other education programs—but a special place is occupied by leisure, cultural and sports services.
Many of the measures undertaken were aimed at managerial and infrastructural issues, such as repair and improvement of public areas, buildings, facilities and water supply systems, purchasing equipment, and solving issues that further financial and organizational sustainability. A closer look reveals that all these interventions also had a positive impact on the social inclusion and cohesion of the local population, including children and youth, women, persons with disabilities, the elderly and other socially vulnerable groups.
The power of ashar
The most prominent example of social integration and cohesion of the local population can be seen in the "ashar," a traditional social mechanism based on collective assistance to fellow villagers. Sadirbek Boronbaev and his wife Alymkan Ismailova, residents of the Beshik-Jon village, both have first-group disability and are among the low-income families of the village. The lack of drinking water in the village has always been a big problem. In past years, due to drinking water shortages they had to carry water from the street wells, which worked for only 2-3 hours a day.
The PSI project helped reactivate the Water Users Union in the municipality, which is the operator of the water supply system that is responsible for providing drinking water, while the local authorities rehabilitated access to water for each household through purchasing the materials and laying water pipes. The local population participated by digging the trenches to lay the pipes. In the case of Sadirbek’s family, the work was done with the help of village youth and neighbors, exemplifying the ashar culture that is the norm in Central Asian countries.
Catalysts for social transformation
Traditional lifestyles and cultural values sometimes create conditions for resistance to change because of cultural inertia. Often, the culture and traditions of different peoples can limit, albeit tacitly, the rights of certain members of society, especially in matters of self-expression and participation in local decision-making. For example, in rural areas, attempts by women to be elected to local councils may cause resistance because of the patriarchal views of that society.
But cultural and traditional practices can have positive effects on the fabric of a society, too. For the most part these elements are centuries-old, historically established rules of coexistence that include respect for elders, hospitality and joint assistance of the village or community in case of force majeure.
A space to build community
Art, sports and culture can also be used to sponsor social transformation in society. When helping to implement the service improvement action plan to better recreation, culture and sports services, we found that the rehabilitated village culture club and library building in Ulakhol municipality gave children the opportunity to engage in extra curriculum, such as musical instrument clubs. This also provided a space for elders to gather and discuss local issues, regardless of weather conditions.
Aymonchok Urpalieva, a secondary school student and a participant in the musical course, said, “Since my early childhood, I was fond of playing the komuz, the Kyrgyz national musical instrument. Unfortunately, there were no opportunities in our village to have extracurricular activities and no available instructor for komuz playing. Village club and the extra activities gave me the opportunity not only to develop my skills of playing the komuz, but also to communicate with other peers, to compete and to become a leader. I am proud to say that I am now one of the top students who participates in various musical competitions.”
The Toguz-Bulak municipality, with the help of the PSI project, built a sports complex at the local school that included a mini football field and volleyball court. Following the launch of these facilities, two women and youth teams have been organized that participate in competitions at the district level. Traditionally, not all sports have been open to women, but there is a gradual shift of deeply ingrained views on gender roles in society. A vivid example of "erasing the boundaries" and unspoken prohibitions for young girls was the fact that two girls from the country's freestyle wrestling team became winners at the last Olympic Games.
Another example of successfully implementing the service improvement action plan can be found in the city of Toktogul, where the city administration rehabilitated the building of the children's art center. More than 500 children have become involved in 14 extracurricular courses aimed at developing the creative potential of children. The city’s youth now have a dedicated space to express themselves through drawing, singing, playing instruments and more.
In addition to these cases, more examples can be seen in the restoration of various parks and playgrounds (Balykchy, Leninsky, Kargalyk, Bolot Mambetovsky municipalities) that became places for leisure, the exchange of views, and raising awareness of the processes taking place in the village. These places play a critical role in communities; a lack of common areas worsens social connections among community members, with particularly detrimental effects on women and youth.
These examples of positive spillover effects and indirect results give the project team additional inspiration to continue expanding their work to strengthen local services. The second phase of the project runs through 2023 and includes working with national partners to actively disseminate our accumulated knowledge to all municipalities in the country.
Helvetas will host a webinar in 2022 on arts and culture for social transformation. Follow us on Twitter for updates on the webinar and other learning opportunities.
About the Author
Nurzhan Kozhosheva is the Knowledge and Learning Facilitator for the Public Service Improvement project.