An Uzbek human rights group concerned about the World Bank’s failure to concede state control of agriculture and the extent of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has received an acknowledgement from the Bank about its concerns.
Ezgulik (Goodness), a leading civil society organization based in Tashkent with chapters in other cities, issued a report circulated via e-mail in December 2010, documenting what it saw as severe flaws in the Bank’s assessments in providing the second phase of a $67.9 million loan to the government of President Islam Karimov in 2008. The non-governmental organization called for a re-evaulation of the Uzbek leadership’s claims of farm reform and adherence to international agreements to prevent exploitation of children, the independent online news service fergananews.com reported.
Ezgulik’s 13-page critique summarizes years of monitoring the rights of farmers and the use of child labor in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek group decided to issue an open letter and report to the Bank following unsuccessful attempts to meet with Shigeo Katsu, former vice president of the Bank’s Europe and Central Asia division, who visited Uzbekistan last year to attend a summit of the Asian Development Bank
Underscoring the role of the government in violating International Labor Conventions signed in 1999, Ezgulik notes: “Our research has shown that the use of forced child labour in this sector is widespread. According to our observations, children are sent to the cotton fields to pick cotton not by their parents, but by their school administrations at the directive of the district and provincial authorities”.
According to a news release distributed by Ezgulik via e-mail, the World bank sent a letter in response to their report on December 22, signed by Takuya Kamata, country manager for Uzbekistan. The letter states that the Bank’s staff “highly appreciate feedback and suggestions from all stakeholders, in particular from the civil society organizations” and said that the message would be conveyed to Philippe H. Le Houerou, the World Bank’s current regional vice president for Europe and Central Asia. Kamata also noted that the Bank wanted an opportunity “to understand your concerns better” and may contact Ezgulik after the holidays.
Ezgulik’s report describes the problems the human rights movement has faced in trying to get international bodies to validate their concerns about abuses in Uzbekistan. For a time, UNICEF failed to to accept the reports of exploitation of children, but ultimately did acknowledge them, and changed its stance, says Ezgulik. Now it is confronting the World Bank: “The school kids are working in cotton fields in hazardous conditions exactly at this time, while the agro-project managers of the World Bank keep reporting success stories about the situation in the farming sector of Uzbekistan.”
Ezgulik evaluates a World Bank review of a $67.9 million loan to Uzbekistan for rural enterprise support, granted in 2008 for the period of 2010-2015, to extend a previous project from 2001-2008. The report makes certain assumptions that Ezgulik vigorously challenges: that farm reforms are underway; that collective farms were abolished; and that private farms were established in their place. Instead, Ezgulik explains, farmers are heavily restricted, are still forced to sell quotas to the state at fixed prices, and are dependent on local administrators for loans and supplies. This situation provides an incentive for bribery so that farmers can get better resources and avoid penalties for failure to meet their quotas.
The government’s command-and-administer system is still in place, and political rather than market demands prevail, says Ezgulik; farmers do not have autonomy to manage their funds and assets and are dependent for machinery, parts, fertilizers etc on state-run monopolists. The Bank provides upbeat characterizations, such as “The impact of the reforms has created a new class of private farmer, no longer subject to direct government management”. Yet Ezgulik denies this claim as “completely mistaken,” and explains how the government dictates the type of crops, the prices, and the prices, and the customers, and punishes dissenting farmers by confiscating their lands or even with beatings.
The Bank also makes the claim, based on government statements, that quotas of cotton for sale to the government have been reduced, a claim Ezgulik flatly denies, noting that 1.5 million tons of cotton fiber continue to be purchased at fixed rates by the Uzbek government, even as the land under cotton cultivation has been reduced — indirectly indicating further exploitation. The government artificially keeps prices low to reduce costs and profits high, and that means the farmer as well as adult day laborers and children are exploited. While farmers are entitled to sell their surplus crops, they have to wait until the end of the season after the state has grabbed its share, and then are forced to sell for lower prices to cotton gins. The system incites corruption, and only a few state loyalists benefit.
Most disturbing was the Bank’s underreporting and minimizing of child labor, says Ezgulik. The Bank found that their social assessment “did not reveal extensive use of child labor” although some was found in some districts and “the Government is already taking steps to eliminate this practice.” Ezgulik protested these findings, which it deemed “deeply flawed” for relying on old UNICEF surveys of 2000 and 2005 that UNICEF itself has now apparently renounced. The human rights activists countered with their recent reports of children working in all of Uzbekistan’s regions, and urged that the Bank disclose the list of farmers receiving loans so that civil society groups could monitor labor conditions. While the Bank project does include financing of third-party monitoring of the use of child labor, Ezgulik called for the selection of such a body to be a transparent process, and to publicize the results of its work. Public awareness activity should also be done in cooperation with civil society groups, Ezgulik urged.
Ezgulik also refuted the Bank’s claims that cotton pickers make $300 a month during the harvest season. In fact, if that were true, says the human rights group, numerous migrant laborers would not leave Uzbekistan in search of work. In reality, they make only $100 a month at best, with meals and other costs deducted. Children miss school for as much as two months while they work in the fields and are often placed in harmful conditions, exposed to pesticides.
The World Bank claims that it consulted with “a wide range of stakeholders” in their assessment, yet as Ezgulik points out, it has not revealed the list of organizations consulted in 2008, which may have been state-sponsored groups. Ezgulik called for increased partnership with authentic civil society groups fighting forced child labor, and urged the Bank to make loans to the agricultural sector “contingent on Uzbekistan’s progress in executing real reforms in the sector and abolishing forced child labor” in the cotton industry.
Ezgulik recently suffered state confiscation of its office equipment for payment of a fine imposed in a libel suit related to the NGO’s reporting of a high-profile murder case.
In recent years, the World Bank has increased its engagement with civil society groups and incorporated more of their findings into its work, but ultimately it relies on the graces of host governments in its global development mission.
The World Bank project in Uzbekistan is funded from the budget of the International Development Association, which in turn is funded by 45 countries of the world. The recent top largest donors are the United Kingdom (14.05%), the United States (12.19%, Japan (10%), Germany (7.05%) and France (6.5%).