Brief insights from an area of utmost geopolitical, religious, and cultural significance.
The Kyrgyz Republic in Central Asia is at the crossroads of significant competing geopolitical, religious, and cultural influences—including the global roles of Russia and China, roiling tensions within Islam, and the nature of relations between Islam and other religions. As such, America and the West should prevent the landlocked, predominantly former Soviet territory and its neighbors from being relegated to the periphery of its international-affairs concerns, where it has often been.
Any American philanthropies with interests in foreign policy shouldn’t do so, either.
We visited Kyrgyzstan—on the famous Silk Road trade routes historically connecting the East and West—earlier this month, during the time Afghanistan to the south fell to the Taliban, which likely will affect the entire region. Kyrgystan’s 6.5 million people live and work in an economy based largely on agriculture.
Though they provide only necessarily limited “snapshots,” our travel to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, the cities of Osh and Jalalabad in the country’s south, and the stunningly and expansively beautiful Lake Issyk-Kul in the Northern Tian Shan mountains of its east give rise to some tentative, brief philanthropy-related insights.
Humbly look elsewhere, then patiently wait
First, as with good domestic giving, grantmakers should actually look much more often to that which is at the periphery of most others’ concerns for good opportunities to leverage their effectiveness. This might especially be applicable to modestly sized foundations with less ability to absorb what would otherwise be considered wasteful expenses. It requires humility, however, along with a recognition of the realistic, so it’s relatively rare.
There are examples, though. In our careers, we have found Milwaukee and Wisconsin to be better-sized philanthropic “playing fields” than say, oh, New York or California for the policy-oriented causes of school choice and work-based welfare reform.
For another, international example, the Rumsfeld Foundation has found Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, to warrant its program attention. The Rumsfeld Foundation funds both a Central Asia-Caucasus Fellowship for rising public- and private-sector leaders and a regular regional forum for discussion of economic growth and social development in the region.
Second, grantmakers need to see more clearly the underappreciated benefits of a long-term worldview—giving with a patience measured by generations and decades, not years or electoral cycles. A donor’s death might precede success, in other words; a realistic humility accepts that.
“Perhaps what is most remarkable about the Rumsfeld Foundation is its constancy of purpose,” Indiana University’s Les Lenkowsky wrote for the Philanthropy Roundtable in memorializing Donald Rumsfeld after his recent death, creatively rewriting some of the famous “Rumsfeld’s Rules” for philanthropy. “Unlike grantmakers who change direction regularly, it has steadily pursued mostly the same course since it began.”
Maybe prayerful patience
Third, consider the place of, and thus perhaps a charitable grantmaking-portfolio place for, faith. (Maybe even prayerfully so, if you’re inclined.) In general, its importance seems undeniable to us. In international affairs, it would seem more so; in Central Asia, definitely so.
There are philanthropic opportunities for engagement here, too. In Bishkek, Osh, and Jalalabad and at Lake Issyk-Kul, we saw a small, but active Catholic Church well at work. Its activities offer inspiring witness in and of themselves, and its engagement with other faiths offers both witness and a fruitful direction for the future.
“It has become evident that, in addition to our primary responsibility to serve the pastoral and spiritual needs of our own small communities, we are in a unique position to support those people of different religious (or non-religious) convictions who are open-minded and who devote their lives to the betterment of Kyrgyz society,” according to Fr. Anthony Corcoran, S.J., apostolic administrator of Kyrgyzstan.
In theology, we speak of the commitment to work with others for the common good of the wider society. This entails a willingness on our part to offer support and encouragement to Muslim and other social actors in various areas of education, humanitarian assistance, and in informal, common “reflection” concerning the essential needs and questions faced by the people of this nation. It is obvious that all of us have much to gain from these relationships.
We saw some of this discreet, cooperative, inter-religious “reflection” at a Catholic camp on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. The impressive Jesuit-run camp hosts Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim youth groups for outdoor recreational activities on the lake and in the mountains. Its facilities, modern but humble themselves, allow for training and workshops of various sorts, too, and they are used by groups of special-needs children and their parents, as well.
“Kyrgyzstan, like so many other societies in this part of the world, very clearly stands at a crossroads: what will prove to be the most attractive or compelling motivation, in embracing its particular path amidst the various religious, socio-political paradigms clamoring for adoption?” Corcoran asks.
“Ours is a tiny presence here. However, it is plausible to make more accessible some remarkable intellectual, social, and spiritual resources in a context of mutual respect and authentic cooperation,” he continues. “This would be a truly significant contribution in our times to the people of this region.”
The camp sure looks like what would otherwise be a similar facility somewhere on a lake in America’s Upper Midwest, but the languages are decidedly different and China’s just on the other side of the mountains that abut it. The crystal-clear lake itself is part of centuries-long civilizational memory, having been crossed by Marco Polo and early Franciscan missionaries. With the local Church’s constancy of purpose, the camp on it is, and should be maintained as, an example.
In earlier periods, “changes originating in the region have been adopted across the Muslim world,” according to Michigan State University’s Martha Brill Olcott and Matthew Rappe in The Review of Faith & International Affairs last year. “And the long history of religious diversity and various precedents (however limited) of tolerance in Central Asia could be raised up in appropriate contexts today … as an encouragement in efforts to promote covenantal pluralism.”
Such encouragement sure seems needed now, as does humility and patience in philanthropically offering it.