Never judge a country by its capital

4 June 2010 at 10:45 3 comments

By Sam Trauffer, Kyrgyzstan

Four weeks ago, I arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to start my second Kiva fellowship. I had spent the previous three months in Thiès, Senegal. The poverty patterns which I encountered in Senegal were not apparent in Bishkek. “Poverty in post-Soviet Union countries is not easily understood”, Eva Nemirovsky, the other Kiva Fellow who currently works in Bishkek, wrote in her recent blog post. Indeed. There seemed to be so many amenities here in Bishkek of which I would not have dared to dream of in Senegal! Four example, our apartment had a cooking stove instead of a fireplace, hot water, a functioning toilet, internet access and much more. In the streets of Bishkek there were cars which have driven only a fraction of the distances their rundown counterparts in Africa have. In short: My new environment seemed to have much more economic wealth than Senegal.

Bishkek, the pretty capital of Kyrgyzstan

But then I learned that Kyrgyzstan is only ranked 184th in per Capita GDP, proofing the country’s weak economy (Senegal ranks only a couple of places behind Kyrgyzstan). How could this country with all its high standards be one of the poorest in the world? Taking one experience and generalizing it is almost always a bad idea. Assuming that a country’s capital represents the whole doesn’t work. This seems to be especially true in developing countries, where regional discrepancies are bigger than in the developed world, where there is not enough wealth to support the disadvantaged regions. Had I judged Senegal just from seeing its vibrant capital Dakar, I would have been similarly misled! By thinking in country-categories, we forget to consider the tremendous regional differences within each country.

A heterogenic picture: poverty levels in the regions of Kyrgyzstan

The reasons for these enormous regional differences in Kyrgyzstan may be manifold: First of all, Bishkek is more accessible than other regions of Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek lies 800 Meters above sea level whereas 94 percent of Kyrgyzstan lies above 1000 meters, the average elevation being 2750 meters!). What’s more, the proximity of Bishkek to fast growing Kazakhstan further favors the capital.

How can the inequalities among the regions be addressed?

One way seems to be microfinance: The MFI—Bai-Tushum and Partners—in which I was placed is in its pilot phase with Kiva and works in all regions of Kyrgyzstan. But given the widespread poverty in remote regions it is no surprise that almost 90 percent of Bai-Tushum’s clients live in rural areas. Microfinance helps reach out to these poor people. As a lender on Kiva you can support people in these regions so that one day poverty becomes harder to find in all regions of the country, not just the capital.

Entry filed under: blogsherpa, Countries, Eastern Europe & Central Asia (EECA), KF11 (Kiva Fellows 11th Class), Kyrgyz Republic. Tags: , , , , , .

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  • 1. ram  |  10 August 2010 at 08:13

    this is very useful for us.

  • 2. Fehmeen  |  7 June 2010 at 11:07

    Solid observation. Often, the governments of developing countries allocate a large portion of the budget towards the development of the federal capital, and more often than not, it’s because that is where most bureaucrats live (of course, your logic makes sense too). And the problem of poor distribution of wealth is prevalent in a lot of countries because I once read that if the seven richest people in the world were to combine their assets, it would be enough to end poverty.

    • 3. Samuel Trauffer  |  9 June 2010 at 18:55

      Hi Fehmeen

      thank you for your comment. I absolutely agree that there might be many more reasons why capitals in these countries are better off than the rest of the country. My enumeration wasnot meant to be exhaustive. The important role of bureaucracies gets visible here in Kyrgystan almost every day…


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