Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, at night (Photo: Edgarpo01/Wikipedia)

Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, at night (Photo: Edgarpo01/Wikipedia)

I was recently struck by what can be learned from the experience of Kazakhstan, a country five times the size of France in the heart of Central Asia with a population of 16 million and independent only since 1991.

Kazakhstan gained independence when the Soviet Union broke up.  Some external observers wondered if it could be a viable country.  21 years later, Kazakhstan is a rapidly developing country with a robust market economy that is a source of stability and growth in Central Asia and a respected international partner.

How was this achieved?

Much is due to the vision and strategy of one man, President Nazarbayev, who has taken Kazakhstan from independence to its position today.  The hallmark of his rule has been gradual but sustained reforms beginning with the economy to create a firm foundation for independent development.  Since 1994, average income per capita has increased twelve fold.  Unemployment is also low.

Political modernization is starting slowly and the Kazakh view is that the process should be given time to develop in line with the needs, traditions and expectations of Kazakhstan’s society rather than those of the West.

Kazakhstan’s leaders point to the example of neighboring Kyrgyzstan that has more developed political institutions but has experienced two revolutions and has GDP per capita around five times lower than in Kazakhstan.

A major difference between the two countries is that Kazakhstan has abundant natural resources while Kyrgyzstan does not.  But this still does not fully explain the success of the Kazakh development model.  There are plenty of countries with no shortage of natural resources that do not maximize their value for the country as a whole.

Education, for example, is a top priority.  In 2009, Kazakhstan was ranked first in UNESCO’s “Education for All Development Index” for having near-universal levels of primary education, adult literacy, and gender parity.  These are impressive results that build on the legacy of the Soviet Union’s education policies and will be vital for equipping Kazakhstan’s young and small population with the skills to thrive in a knowledge-based economy that the countries leaders have set out to build.  They understand that relying on natural resources for future prosperity is a dangerous course.  Their approach is simple: adapt to the hi-tech, post-industrial economy or be left behind.

Healthcare reform is also rightly seen as a pre-requisite for successful socio-economic development and is receiving priority attention.

The country has also attracted more than $160 billion in foreign direct investment since 1993, which is 80 percent of all foreign investment in Central Asia.  It is a respected international partner on a range of international security issues thanks to its subtle diplomacy that balances between China, Russia and the West.

Developing countries, in particular, should look at the sustainable energy agenda that Kazakhstan is driving at the United Nations.  This is unusual for a country rich in natural resources.  Its proposals include the flagship Green Bridge Partnership initiative that was presented at the Rio+20 conference in June.

The proposed Green Bridge Partnership is an international mechanism to bring together countries, governments, international organizations and private companies to find transnational solutions to sustainable growth.  Since its presentation at Rio, the European Development Bank, the International Financial Corporation and partner governments have expressed interest in taking part in the project.

I believe there is considerable potential in this idea and it is striking to see a young country leading such a bold international effort.

This ambition is further underlined by Kazakhstan’s bid to host EXPO-2017 in its new capital Astana on the theme of “Future Energy”, with the aim of attracting five million visitors from around the world.  The purpose of the event will be to discuss alternative energy solutions based on existing global experience.  This project is worthy of support by other governments, particularly those of developing countries.  I believe that it is worth showing solidarity with a young and successful country that has already developed such a progressive international agenda and is offering much needed fresh approaches.

Amid the economic gloom in Europe, and particularly in my country, Spain, we are becoming increasingly conscious of societies that are younger and, in some cases, more dynamic, that if they are not doing so already, are going to force us to compete at a higher level.

Kazakhstan is one of those countries that stand a good chance of being able to make the jump to an advanced knowledge-based economy by missing out some of the preceding stages.

We should all take note.