Views from Central Asia on UK foreign policy

As the UK Parliament reviews its engagement and diplomacy in Central Asia, John Smith Fellows from the region provide their unique insights and perspectives.

Last month, the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee published a report from its inquiry into the UK’s engagement and diplomacy in Central Asia. Parliamentary inquiries are conducted by Select Committees, such as the Foreign Affairs Committee, which are made up of Members of Parliament from different parties, who work as a team to produce reports and other information on a given topic, mostly scrutinising the government. They examine policy formation and delivery, public spending, and the way departments are run.  Inquiries are a key way of examining topics within a Select Committee’s remit. The Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, ‘Countries at crossroads: UK engagement in Central Asia’, makes recommendations for the UK Government to be “both a reliable long-term partner and a critical friend” to countries in Central Asia.

While the inquiry was in progress, John Smith Fellows from Central Asia gave their perspectives on UK foreign policy in their region at an online roundtable in June. The John Smith Trust and the Foreign Policy Centre organised the session, which was chaired by John Smith trustee Baroness Alison Suttie.

During the roundtable, Fellows explored “how the UK can foster regional cooperation through its foreign policy in Central Asia and why it’s strategically important to do so at this pivotal moment.”

Crisis for civil society

Fellows discussed key challenges in their countries. These include restrictions on civil society and the media and the lack of legitimacy of civil society in the eyes of the public. One of the issues is that funding is often based on donor priorities rather than local needs.

To overcome this, they highlighted the need to build cooperation and improve understanding and communication between government, businesses and civil society sectors – both within countries and across the region.

The Fellows also discussed development opportunities in areas such as energy, trade and the digital and creative economies and strategies for strengthening climate and environmental policy.

Foreign policy considerations

The John Smith Trust and the Foreign Policy Centre developed a set of recommendations and foreign policy considerations for the UK government to take into account based on the roundtable discussion.

These recognise that “supporting greater cooperation between different sectors in and across Central Asian countries would enable the UK to contribute to better governance as well as sustainable economic development – and therefore make Central Asian countries more reliable and resilient partners in the long term.”

Key recommendations from Fellows

To help build the legitimacy of civil society organisations, there needs to be greater funding and support for informal grassroots initiatives that mobilise people and link them to formal organisations. This calls for more flexible funding streams to support community initiatives.

At the same time, embassies and the international community must speak up for civil society organisations and encourage national governments to provide them with more support. Leveraging investment and trade partnerships can give these statements political and economic weight and increase commitment by Central Asian governments to international conventions and standards.

The UK needs to show that it is supportive of Central Asia’s economic development and that it wants to invest in the wellbeing of Central Asian societies. It should take every opportunity to encourage openness and cross-sector, cross-regional cooperation among business, civil society and the public sector. This calls for much greater international cooperation.