The COVID-19 pandemic threatens economies and has disrupted societies everywhere. To recover, restore, and rebuild, every country will need to lean on expertise and the very best of its human capital. However, in Central Asia, the bitter truth is that systems that were already struggling before the pandemic will suffer more because so many of their best and brightest have simply left. This brain drain of the region’s human capital now poses nearly as big a problem as the virus itself.
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Once the pandemic fades, governments hope their citizens abroad can be enticed home to help their native countries heal from the effects of the pandemic, applying their knowledge, skills, networks and finances to the problems of recovery. Yet appeals to altruism and patriotism may not be sufficient. For instance, the region’s largest country, Uzbekistan, is already trying to find new and additional appeals to attract these specialists to return.
There are two schools of thought on this in Uzbekistan. One is that many intelligent and capable Uzbeks left because they were not valued by the established system. A second view claims that Uzbekistan still has many well-educated and skilled people inside the country but their skills are misapplied. Put bluntly, what remains of Uzbekistan’s human capital base is not doing the right things, or doing them in the right places.
This underlying problem of human capital has been one of the country’s hottest topics since late 2016, when Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power and promised to create a new Uzbekistan on the ashes of the late Islam Karimov’s stagnant dictatorship. However, to make that new Uzbekistan, and thus remake this hub of Central Asia, Mirziyoyev has had to expand his patriotic appeals, lean on an array of new incentives and enticements, and, ultimately, broaden the country’s political, economic, and intellectual establishment.
The patriotic piece of this appeal is the most straightforward. Proud of their ancient history, culture, and scientific heritage, Uzbeks have always shared the dream of a prosperous, truly independent society where people could achieve their own dreams and every citizen have a chance to thrive. In this, Uzbekistan is not unique. The ‘Uzbek dream’ has echoes in most developing countries, including those that are considered to be fast-rising powers, such as China and India. Like Uzbeks, millions of their citizens also live and work in the more advanced economies of North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. And also just like those countries, millions of Uzbeks have sought opportunities for study and work abroad, settling wherever they can best pursue their professional and economic dreams.
Both sides of Uzbekistan’s human capital debate reflect elements of the true picture. Many talented Uzbeks have indeed emigrated in the face of a system that has not known how to appreciate them. At the same time, many of the talented Uzbeks who remain are underutilised, underpaid, or undervalued. Adham Bekmurodov leads an ambitious government effort, ‘El-yurt umidi’, or the Nation’s Hope Foundation. With an initial state investment of $75 million at its launch in late 2018, the programme envisioned training 5,000 specialists within two to three years at the top schools around the world.
“The state is funding graduate, Ph.D., postgraduate studies, and training opportunities,” Bekmurodov says. “The top priority is to place them in government institutions and have them work to speed up the reforms because we need these professionals in the system as soon as possible.”
In the fall of 2019, the fund had 907 fellows scattered across the globe, nearly 700 of them attending professional training programmes. The next stage aims to supply the private sector with these foreign-educated specialists.
Applicants to the programme proceed through four stages but the most important one is to convince the selection committee that she or he strongly believes in Mirziyoyev’s reform agenda, has ideas to further it, and then advocate their own case for overseas training abroad, suggesting ways that it can help them to be more useful upon return.
Bekmuradov says 885 of his fund’s alumni have already joined the government and are serving in key roles in various institutions. ‘El-yurt umidi’ also seeks to link Uzbek professionals around the world to relevant sectors at home. It has forged networks through its expert council comprised of scientists, academics, entrepreneurs, financiers, doctors and others.
In the fall of 2017, when Mirziyoyev made his first trip to the United States (US), he met 18 Uzbek professionals in New York, urging them to come home and help him to reform Uzbekistan. And while none of those Uzbeks followed him back to Tashkent, Mirziyoyev’s message was still received as a historic sign of opening and inspired those present and thousands of others around the world to look at the country through new eyes.
Indeed, many of these overseas Uzbeks have since developed close relations with their colleagues in the country. And they see a role for themselves in attracting investment, fighting corruption, and linking Uzbekistan with international networks and global practices.
Mirziyoyev followed his New York and later Washington visit with similarly-spirited stops in Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and other capitals, where he met with more groups of successful and well-established Uzbeks, repeating the same exhortations and telling them that Uzbekistan is proud of them wherever they are and whatever they are doing. Many of these Uzbeks are enthused but cautious since the government may not follow up on the President’s promises. But, the doors to their native land are now open and they have more options to help Uzbekistan than ever before.
In 2017, when Mirziyoyev unfolded the highlights of his reform agenda, a group of these Uzbeks launched ‘Buyuk Kelajak’ (Great Future), bringing together hundreds of professionals from East Asia all the way to Canada. In 2019, Bahrom Ismoilov, one of its founders, told VOA that this expert network had proposed a development strategy for Uzbekistan for the next 15 years. “We are a network of great minds and capable hands, ready to contribute and change the course of the country if the leadership is ready to consider our ideas and advice,” Ismoilov said.
Buyuk Kelajak’s institutional sponsors in Tashkent, the Development Strategy Center and the ‘Yuksalish’ National Movement, contend that many of that network’s ideas are already being realised, specifically in public administration, and in the legal and economic sectors. Ismoilov has since left the network but Buyuk Kelajak maintains that it is continuing to grow and increase its impact. Its members have diverse and sometimes conflicting goals; some want to pursue these from abroad, while others seek to return and join the government, and there are those who merely want to use this platform to grow their own ventures. The Mirziyoyev Administration seems comfortable with all of these propositions but is eager to turn their talk into genuine results that pay dividends for Uzbekistan’s economic development.
In 2019, Mirziyoyev launched a new institution, the Government Service Development Agency, and appointed Sherzod Kudbiyev, a presidential advisor and former Minister of Labor, to head it. Kudbiyev’s main task was to set up a professional public service in Uzbekistan, which should include a substantial number of Uzbeks with foreign experience. In a summit in Tashkent with over 300 overseas Uzbeks in early 2020, Kudbiyev tried to persuade professionals from various fields that the system was open to hire and accommodate them.
“Uzbekistan, your motherland, is waiting for you!” he exclaimed, challenging them to join its ranks to help take the country to a new level in every sphere. Kudbiyev has moved to a new position since then but the agency’s mission remains the same.
Abdujabbor Abduvohidov, a veteran academic with vast experience in the government, is now Mirziyoyev’s close aide on education, science and culture. He argues that Uzbekistan cannot transform without the contributions of its citizens abroad, and especially those with solid networks and experience.
“Uzbekistan, your motherland, is waiting for you!” he asks these overseas Uzbeks rhetorically. “We will create the necessary conditions for you, but it will be up to you to show us what you can do.”
The event at which Abduvohidov spoke focused on two groups of Uzbeks trained abroad: the first is a former Umid community, ‘Umid’ being a scholarship fund launched by Islam Karimov that from 1997-2003 funded 828 students to obtain degrees abroad. The Karimov Administration later ended the programme on grounds that it was not delivering a sufficient return on investment. Many Umid fellows simply did not return after graduation; even among those who did return, many chose to leave again or opt out of government service.
Yet, El-yurt umidi director Bekmuradov does not agree that Umid failed. Nor do many Umid fellows. At least a dozen now either serve as ministers or deputy ministers in the government or manage high-profile portfolios below that level in the Uzbek government. Minister of Foreign Trade and Investments Sardor Umurzakov is one of them. Educated in the United Kingdom and experienced in international banking, he is now the face of Uzbekistan’s quest for foreign direct investment and aims to forge close ties with global markets.
Umurzakov’s calls to his fellow Uzbek professionals sound like John F. Kennedy’s from the 1960s when he exhorted his fellow Americans, “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Umurzakov says he knows how many of these passionate yet cautious Uzbeks feel about returning and joining the ranks.
“You left or stayed abroad because there were no opportunities to grow and achieve your dreams here in Uzbekistan… I was one of you too. I came back following my studies, worked hard to make a difference but grew frustrated with the lack of will to change the system, so I went back to Europe. But the times that we dreamed of are now here. Under the leadership of President Mirziyoyev, we have more options and opportunities than ever to change this country, to make this a better place to live. Together we can offer a better future for the generations to come.”
Umurzakov asks those interested in working in Uzbekistan to embrace the challenges and use them to shape the system in every field in ways that they think are right for the country. The Uzbek people want these specialists back, says Umurzakov, because they believe they are capable of forging a new Uzbekistan. So, he urges, those who believe in themselves and their skills to return and seek the most challenging positions, such as deputy governors, who execute and manage local reforms.
Uzbekistan’s Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov, another Umid alumnus, believes there is room now for willing and talented people. As someone overseeing the human rights reform process, with responsibility for improving the way the government serves its citizens, Davletov believes in reducing the state’s role in a citizen’s life and business. Describing his own professional path and lessons learned so far, he advises Uzbek professionals interested in working in Uzbekistan to focus on how they can shape the system and society in general to become more accountable and transparent.
Davletov told VOA in 2018 that he saw no clash or disagreement between those with foreign experience and locally trained professionals. “I can assure you we all want to reform Uzbekistan and while we may have different ideas, the goal is the same,” he said.
Atabek Nazirov, formerly a US-based banker is now on his third high-level position in the Mirziyoyev Administration. He says that when he came to Tashkent in 2018, he committed to keep his mind “as open as possible,” to get to know the system, connect with relevant people and entities, and most importantly to learn from them and listen. “What is clear,” he told VOA when he was working as deputy minister of public education, “is that Uzbekistan needs us, and it needs us now.” He previously served as the Deputy Minister of Innovative Development and currently heads the Capital Market Development Agency.
“You can’t come here expecting miracles. You come because you want to be a part of the changes this country needs, and because you can help during this process with your knowledge and work,” Nazirov observes. “You are taken very seriously by everybody in the country and you’re given every chance and every opportunity to share your knowledge and make your recommendations. So, the message I would send to someone like myself, willing to come back is, drop all your expectations. Don’t expect anything. Just be ready to come and join the reform programmes. Join the government if you’re offered the chance. If not, there are other things to do, in the private sector, among NGOs, anything, its fun to be here. It’s the best time to be here.”
Based on his own experience, Nazirov advises others to be ready for personal sacrifices, such as having your family still based abroad, or losing some income. But, he says, once back in Uzbekistan, you can definitely make a difference. “You take initiative, you run with it, and if you can convince people, your idea wins the day.”
Bakhrom Mirganiev, a tax lawyer based in the US, with extensive experience in Big 4 tax firms, as well as banking, IT, media, and capital markets, believes Uzbekistan can equally utilise its human capital at home and abroad. Mirganiev spent a year in Tashkent, working at the Ministry of Finance, reforming tax and customs duties policies. He has also consulted for Uzbek banks, focusing on restructuring the banking system, their short and long-term strategy, implementing risk management and compliance mechanisms, as well as developing retail business.
“What’s clear is that Uzbekistan does not lack knowledge or skills. There are enough professionals and experts at home and those willing to join from abroad. But we need a substantial amount of will to move projects and initiatives forward,” Mirganiev told VOA. “No matter where you are – in Tashkent or elsewhere, locally trained or foreign educated – those with ideas are struggling to make themselves heard and their work seen.” These stories beg a pivotal question: are these people, faced with systemic challenges and barriers, supporting each other and networking?
Everyone who has talked to VOA says ‘yes’, but also points to obstacles. While moral support plays a role, colleagues rooted in the system and those just joining it need to connect and cooperate to deliver results. That means both groups need to share common goals, and both see a lack of leadership and effective management.
Several expats, including Mirganiev, say they face enormous difficulties in getting paid by the Uzbek government. Banks and consulting firms pay fine, Mirganiev says, but if you work in the bureaucratic system, promises are rarely kept, and employment contracts are not developed. Clearly stated rights and responsibilities mean little except on paper. And they are not followed, diminishing trust in the government. That, in turn, makes many of these foreign-based Uzbeks reconsider their return. They come to question the value of the sacrifices they are making, including being away from family and earning less income.
“We are not asking for the money we make in America, even though that was the initial promise by the Uzbek government. All that has changed now. But we want reliability. Some offer to do pro bono work if they can afford to do so, but if you are here in Uzbekistan full-time, then those employment contracts and salary agreements are critically important,” Mirganiev says.
“There is no doubt we want to help and are willing to share our experience to make Uzbekistan a modern, economically strong and internationally recognised player in the world, but all these goals require hard-won professional expertise.”
Umid Mamadaminov is another US educated and experienced professional. He has founded several business ventures with American as well as Chinese partners in Uzbekistan. Focused on the energy, agricultural and education sectors, Mamadaminov observes that there are plenty of opportunities and space for anyone with skills to do great things.
“Obviously there are many challenges,” he says. “The important decisions made at the top don’t always filter down into the system and people like us face many barriers because of the lack of responsibility, perception and will. I know the leadership is aware of these issues. But we are trying every day to make things work, to break those barriers and find a common language with the local authorities. But we can’t just pick up and leave or lose hope because of these longstanding issues. Aren’t we here to fix problems and show new ways of doing things?”
Azizjon Rasulov, a German-educated lawyer and international business expert, returned in 2001 and has since worked in Uzbekistan, in his own fields, leading several projects. He believes in living up to commitments, stressing that his five-year government work requirement helped him understand the system better. He adds that every dollar that Uzbekistan has spent in educating and training its youth bears fruit. No matter where people work today, he says, they are helping this country in some way.
“I see an open policy now in terms of connecting with the world, including with Uzbeks abroad. If you want to work here, make sure you have a clear contract outlining the terms and conditions. The country needs you, but nobody is requiring you to come back. You can return if you want to and are ready to deal with the challenges. It’s harder if you’ve been away for too long but if you are someone who has maintained professional ties with Uzbekistan over the years, it may be easier for you to adjust.”
Like many others, Rasulov, too, believes Uzbekistan can and must find a golden mean that balances the role of local professionals and foreign educated ones. Their input, he says, complements to one another’s and can produce amazing results for the country when joined together. Indeed, he adds, such cooperation can perhaps demonstrate that Uzbekistan’s ‘brains’ have not actually ‘drained’ but simply travelled the world to get the best of it and then brought it back home to make what was left behind stronger and more effective.
The question, ultimately, is what the Uzbek government will do to overcome these concerns—to retain talent, incentivise returnees, and change the environment for both groups in meaningful and enduring ways. The good news is that the Mirziyoyev Administration is more open than ever before to ideas and proposals from compatriots around the world. And it has demonstrated the credibility of that openness by actually hiring some of them.
But the system needs to take further steps. One would be to establish a central recruiting body, which should announce vacancies, act as a centralised clearing-house for applications, provide a single of point-of-contact for those seeking opportunities, and coordinate interviews with candidates while helping them navigate the system to match their talents to tangible prospects. Right now, interested professionals have been left to their own devices, relegated to seeking opportunities through personal networks without an assistance from an outlet empowered to truly help them. Such a body would match the right talent to the right people in the right places and ensure that they are considered and then matched to relevant positions. At present, the expert councils and the ‘El-yurt umidi’ Foundation are neither tasked with nor aim to offer these services. So, what Uzbekistan needs now is a transparent, fair and professional recruitment system dedicated to hiring from abroad.
Navbahor Imamova is a prominent Uzbek journalist at the Voice of America. As anchor, reporter, multimedia editor and producer, she has covered Central Asia and the U.S. for nearly 20 years on TV, radio and online. Since 2018, she has also been reporting from inside Uzbekistan as the first-ever U.S.-based accredited correspondent in the country. During 2016-2017, she was a prestigious Edward S. Mason Fellow in public policy and management, while earning her Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Imamova played a pivotal role in the launch of Uzbek television programming at VOA in 2003, and has since presented almost 900 editions of the flagship weekly show, ‘Amerika Manzaralari’, which covers American foreign policy focusing on Washington’s relations with Central Asia, as well as life and politics in the U.S. She speaks frequently on regional issues in Central Asia, as well as Uzbek politics and society, for policy, academic, and popular audiences. Her analytical pieces have been published in leading academic and news outlets including Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Atlantic. Imamova also is the founding President of the VOA Women’s Caucus. She began her career at the Uzbek state broadcaster in Tashkent. This paper does not reflect the views of the Voice of America, where author works;
Cover Photo by Papas Dos, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
This material has been prepared as part of the Foreign Policy Centre’s Spotlight on Uzbekistan publication edited by Adam Hug. The opinions expressed in the essay do not reflect the position of the CABAR editorial board.