The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how vital digital technologies are in our life. Unforeseen technological consequences of lockdown and quarantine measures caught unaware both peoples and governments. They also tested the readiness and capabilities of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and digital services of countries since a large part of almost all essential services, be it education, business, or public services, became available only online. As Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), noted, “Digital has taken on a compelling new meaning – people, planet and prosperity are all increasingly dependent on access to digitally-driven technological innovations and seamless connectivity” [ESCAP, 2020]. Thus, acknowledging that the pandemic exposed the need to deepen the digitalization process, this article examines, based on international assessments and data, the preparedness of the Central Asian states in integrating digital solutions.
All the Central Asian states but Turkmenistan that continues to claim that there are no COVID-19 cases in the country face the consequences of the ongoing pandemic. Regional governments has implemented various measures to control the disease by introducing home office, distance learning, online public services, and automated chatbots. However, the level of penetration of these digital services depend on the level of the ICT infrastructure, including the internet coverage, speed, and capacity. On top of that, national digital strategies, digital adoption of public services, and e-government have become prerequisites to respond to the new reality of lockdown.
Prior to the pandemic, Kazakhstan was among the pioneers in Central Asia in introducing digital technologies – via its “Digital Kazakhstan” program launched in December 2017. The country was also at the forefront in the region in launching e-government services back in 2008. As a result, over the last years, new laws on public services and new technologies have been adopted to legalize the e-status, whilst the e-gov system already provides more than 83% of public services [Zerde, 2020]. In the recently published UN E-Government Development Index (EGDI), Kazakhstan is placed in the 29th position, significantly advancing from 39th in 2018. The country also ranks among the very high-level countries in the e-participation index and the open government data index [UN, 2020].
Kyrgyzstan adopted its concept of the national digital transformation program “Digital Kyrgyzstan 2019-2023” in 2019 and declared 2019 as the Year of Regional Development and Digitalization of Kyrgyzstan. Prior to that, in 2017, the government adopted the digital transformation program “Taza Koom” that also aimed to improve the national digital infrastructure. Although the country has considerable problems in providing basic internet connections due to the limited coverage and high prices, the Kyrgyz e-government system, e-kyzmat, consistently enlarges its e-services for the population with the plan to provide 80% of public services electronically by 2023 [Soltobaev, 2020]. As of now, Kyrgyzstan has the high EGDI, ranking 83rd, as well as the high e-participation index, whilst its open government data index is estimated as middle [UN, 2020].
Uzbekistan, meanwhile, is in the process of developing its “Digital Uzbekistan-2030” program. In his latest address to the nation, President Mirziyoyev outlined the transition to the digital economy for the next five years and specified 2020 as the “Year of Science, Enlightenment and Digital Economy Development”. Although at present only 30% of public services are connected to e-government, the presidential decree from April 2020 provides for the majority of services to be integrated into an electronic system in the near future [Sputnik, 2020]. In the EGDI, the country is placed in the 87th place with very high e-participation and open government data indexes [UN, 2020].
Tajikistan introduced its “Concept for the Formation of Electronic Government in the Republic of Tajikistan (2012-2020)” in 2011 and divided its implementation into three stages, but it is far behind the schedule in providing e-government services. Low access to the internet due to the inability to own electronic devices and high costs of connection that include a 5% excise tax on the internet, in addition to the lack of the ICT infrastructure across the country, challenges the realization of the program [Abdujaborov, 2019]. In fact, as of 2020, only 26% of the population are connected to the internet [Datareportal, 2020]. Hence, in the EGDI, Tajikistan is placed in the 133rd position with the middle EGDI and e-participation index, and the low open government data index.
Turkmenistan announced its “Concept of the Development of Digital Economy until 2025” in 2019 and adopted a law on electronic document management and digital services in March 2020. The government aims to implement an electronic document management system in 2021, whilst President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov instructed responsible officials to expedite the launch of an e-government system [CentralAsia.news, 2020]. However, due to the unsatisfactory level of infrastructure and gaps in providing connection, internet penetration in the country remains substantially low. Among the 193 UN member states in the EGDI, Turkmenistan is in 158th place, with low e-participation and open government data indexes. In addition, according to Datareportal, only 1.2% of the population use social media that shows a low level of digital literacy among the population.
Thus, despite the fact that the Central Asian governments have been developing their national digital strategies, it is difficult to implement a digital agenda without a proper ICT infrastructure. According to the World Bank, the Central Asian states suffer from poor quality and expensive internet connectivity due to incomplete regulatory environments, a low level of private investments, limited use of ICT, limited regional integration, and a lack of connectivity because the global internet traffic bypasses the Central Asian states [Navas-Sabater, 2019]. As the graphic below illustrates, the level of internet penetration and the number of internet and mobile users in the region significantly varies by country. According to Datareportal, as of January 2020, Kazakhstan has the highest internet coverage of 79% that provides 81% of the population with an internet connection, whilst the number of mobile connections is equivalent to 136% of the total population. Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, despite the low penetration of the internet (47%), has the highest number of mobile connections (150%) in the region, which means that mobile devices are a major tool for connection. Uzbekistan covers more than half of its population (55%) with 76% of the internet usage via mobile connections. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have similarly low levels (26%) of internet penetration, however, the share of mobile connections (107%) in Tajikistan demonstrates that Tajik users also prefer mobile devices as a major connection tool [Datareportal, 2020].
Source: based on the combined data from Datareportal (2020).
Undoubtedly, the poor internet coverage and the outdated ICT infrastructure are among the major challenges of digital connectivity in the region. In order to narrow the digital gap, the World Bank developed a Digital CASA (Digital Central Asia-South Asia) regional program that aims to improve broadband Internet connectivity and to develop an integrated digital infrastructure in the region. The first country that joined the project was Kyrgyzstan, for which the World Bank approved $50 million in March 2018. Uzbekistan is waiting for approval of its Digital CASA-Uzbekistan project, which has an estimated budget of $300 million, while Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are negotiating the project terms [Navas-Sabater, 2019]. In general, signed Digital CASA projects incorporate three components – expanding the regional and domestic connectivity infrastructure; enabling the environment for digital transformation; and promoting digital entrepreneurship. Thus, with the support of the World Bank, the Central Asian states aspire to advance their connectivity capacity that will promote regional digital connectivity.
Besides, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), have been developing their digital strategies in line with the “EAEU Digital Agenda until 2025”. The EAEU member states also foster digitalization at the regional level, and since 2018 the Eurasian Economic Commission’s project office for the implementation of digital initiatives has become a place where the EAEU member states can transmit their initiatives.
Overall, although the Central Asian states lag in digital development in comparison to other regions, the positive policies of their governments in accelerating the efforts to embrace digitalization cannot be denied. The ongoing pandemic provided those, who have implemented digitalization, with a chance to test the capacity of their technologies, while for others who have neglected the need of an e-system to reconsider its value for both business and public. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres outlined, “the post-COVID-19 world will be different and much more digital than before” [UN, 2020]. The Central Asian states will definitely continue to deepen the digitalization processes in all spheres of life, albeit the proper socio-economic development, the advanced ICT infrastructure and the willingness for transparency are necessary conditions for the successful implementation of digitalization.
Abdujaborov, Marufjon (2019). E-Government in Tajikistan: Myth or Reality. Retrieved from https://cabar.asia/en/e-government-in-tajikistan-myth-or-reality/. Accessed on 10.09.2020.
CentralAsia.news (2020). Turkmenistan will launch the “Electronic Government” system. Retrieved from https://centralasia.news/7382-turkmenistan-zapustit-sistemu-jelektronnoe-pravitelstvo.html. Accessed on 10.09.2020.
Datareportal (2020). Posts Tagged Central Asia. Retrieved from https://datareportal.com/reports/?tag=Central+Asia. Accessed on 10.09.2020.
ESCAP (2020). UN Forges Technological Cooperation to Tackle COVID-19 in Asia and the Pacific. Retrieved from https://www.unescap.org/news/un-forges-technological-cooperation-tackle-covid-19-asia-and-pacific. Accessed on 10.09.2020.
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Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr.Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow of the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. She was a Fellow of the EUCACIS PhD support programme, Fudan Fellow 2017, a visiting student of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at the University of Cambridge along with being an exchange student at Lanzhou University. Previously, she had worked at the international departments of Narxoz and AlmaU universities on the implementation of the internationalization strategy of th