Air pollution has reached crisis levels in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek in recent years, with ever-increasing media coverage drawing attention to the problem and citizens’ frustrations justified by a series of scientific studies. A 2022 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report says 12-13% of the deaths in the Kyrgyz Republic each year can be attributed to poor air quality, amounting to as many as 5,000 fatalities. Although no one in the city disputes the seriousness of the issue, effective policy solutions can often be elusive, with reliable data hard to come by and consensus difficult to build around common next steps. In such cases, passionate, local civil society groups play a key role, acting not only as a ‘bridge’ between government decision-makers and the broader public but also as credible technical authorities in analyzing the problem and as charismatic advocates in swaying public opinion.
In Bishkek, with assistance from NDI, the environmental non-government organization (NGO) MoveGreen has assumed such a role. Working as part of a cohort of similarly-minded NGO advocates across the country, the activists in MoveGreen have made as meaningful a difference to promoting inclusive and citizen-centered policymaking processes as they have in safeguarding the clarity of the air citizens breathe. Local residents have attributed the worsening air quality in the city to various causes – such as the felling of trees in city parks or the increasingly congested vehicle traffic – and, in most cases, the residents are correct. However, for MoveGreen, it was apparent that the largest single problem was pollution due to the burning of poor quality, sulfur-rich coal, especially in the winter when many private homes depend on this fuel for their heating. This position is also held by the authors of the UNDP report, which stated: “[t]he most dangerous levels of fine particulate matter pollution are caused by residential heating…attention should be paid, first and foremost, to reducing emissions from private housing.” However, this was less obvious to decision-makers and the broader public.
Over a five-month period, beginning in February 2023, with NDI support, MoveGreen conducted a series of public-facing and consultative interventions to build a greater understanding of the problem and potential solutions. MoveGreen’s initiatives in this area involved commissioning an expert analysis, including an energy audit of the city. Among the key findings in the research was the fact that the urgently needed reduction in coal emissions could be achieved most expediently, not by the extensive and costly investment in natural gas infrastructure on which many stakeholders were placing their hopes, but rather by a more individually focused and low-tech solution: the improved insulation of private housing.
Throughout this process, NDI encouraged MoveGreen to actively invite city councilors and various central and local government agencies to work with them. In particular, various public hearings, roundtables and working level meetings were organized by MoveGreen to address the issue of smog in the city jointly. Such activities served to further establish stronger partnerships between NGOs and government representatives. Such engagements facilitated direct cooperation between MoveGreen and the city council, leading сouncilors to publicly recognize the importance of working with civil society and using research to formulate policy. NDI's continued assistance involved leveraging relationships with key decision-makers, providing technical advice on effective follow-up opportunities, and assisting MoveGreen in accessing such important decision-makers. These efforts ensured ongoing meetings and discussions, which led to MoveGreen's permanent inclusion in the сouncil's environment committee, where their independent expertise continues to be highly valued. In addition, NDI supported MoveGreen in organizing press tours for city сouncilors, providing insights into the areas of energy efficiency and landfill management. This collaborative effort has fostered a more effective and better informed approach to tackling smog and environmental issues in the city.
MoveGreen proceeded to demonstrate the practical benefits of improving the insulation of private housing through guided site visits and outward-facing public awareness initiatives, demonstrating that insulation provides short-term and high-return benefits for both families and the state, just as it does for the environment. This idea was widely applauded by residents, experts and city councilors alike. In winning over allies to their cause at the municipal level, MoveGreen managed to secure government support and even funding for an energy efficiency fund to support different insulation projects across the city. A number of interested Members of Parliament (MPs) have also established a cross party parliamentary group to promote MoveGreen’s policy ideas at a national level. Therefore, by promoting alternative ways of combating air pollution in Bishkek, MoveGreen is now contributing to creating a healthier environment for all citizens across the country.
Aside from these tangible policy achievements, MoveGreen has also set precedents for more collaborative interaction between civil society activists and local government officials, with representatives from the latter often praising MoveGreen’s technical expertise in this area. MoveGreen managed to build respect for independent civic activists and their (sometimes critical) voices within the policymaking process, establishing important new working relationships along the way. Through this project, closer relations between citizens and elected representatives are now starting to bring about an increased understanding of citizens' needs and the ability to translate such needs into concrete policies and actions. Demonstrating the power of collective civic action, such partnerships can serve as a model for further initiatives by other NGOs in this country and wider afield. By promoting effective partnerships between political parties, NGOs and citizens, NDI’s programming in the Kyrgyz Republic has helped to establish more inclusive and more citizen-centric governance models aimed at driving home meaningful societal change for citizens.
Authors: Elina Osmonalieva, NDI Kyrgyzstan Parliamentary Program Assistant; Nurlan Abdaliev, NDI Kyrgyzstan Parliamentary Program Manager; Matt Tappert, NDI DC Senior Program Manager
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.