25 February 2011, Dushanbe, Tajikistan - A dramatic decline in brucellosis, a serious disease affecting both livestock and humans in this Central Asian country, is being hailed as the first major victory of the recently privatized national animal health service.
Government services in this former Soviet republic all but collapsed during a civil war in the 1990s and by 2004 brucellosis infected 8.5 percent of the country's vast sheep and goat herds. Meat and dairy production declined and people who caught the disease from consuming unpasteurized milk and cheese became debilitated with chronic fevers, muscle pains and weakness.
The situation has turned around, with disease rates now around 2.5 percent, thanks to a nationwide campaign that marshalled the country's veterinarians into a Tajikistan Veterinary Association, now with 1 000 dues-paying members, upgraded their skills and developed a network of veterinary drug stores and small clinics. From there, 1.7 million animals were vaccinated.
Although the initial emergency phase of the campaign was subsidized by the European Union and Sweden through FAO projects, the key to sustainable privatization was the decision to phase out subsidies. Now farmers pay for every vaccination in full, a big change in thinking after decades of free medical care under the communist system.
International donors and FAO were determined to foster self-reliance in the country. They did not want merely to substitute aid dependence for government dependence.
"We explained from the beginning that one day the project would end and the cost of vaccination would be covered by the farmers themselves," says Karomattulo Khamroev, a national consultant and senior veterinarian who has worked with FAO for the past 11 years.
Rahmonali Ashurov is the chief vet for a sub-district near Kulyab, a city that has traded in livestock since the ancient days of the Silk Road. Standing with Dr Khamroev in a field full of sheep, he sums up the local situation at the moment: "The private sector is thriving and the number of animals in our area increases year by year. The latest blood tests show that we have no brucellosis in this region."
One of the major comparative advantages of the UN system is its neutrality. Agencies work systematically and freely across national borders. FAO has been able to spread the lessons learned in its privatization efforts and disease campaigns elsewhere in Asia.
"Last year we had a regional workshop in Dushanbe where people from Georgia, Armenia, the rest of Central Asia, even from Jordan and Turkey, came to look at how FAO has handled and dealt with brucellosis control and what lessons and best practices they can take back with them to their own countries," says Nassim Jawad, Coordinator, FAO Coordination Office in Tajikistan, adding that Tajik specialists were also travelling to neighbouring countries to share their knowledge.
Mr Jawad, a native of Afghanistan, just across the Tajikistan's southern border, knows the sub-region well and brings international linguistic skills to his task. Dari, his mother tongue, is related to the Tajik language so that he communicates effortlessly with his staff and the government. His main work now is to facilitate government reform in the agricultural sector.
"We are the lead technical agency in the reform process," he says. "We have been tasked with all six working groups in the sector: agriculture, water, land reform, governance, alternative financing and social protection of rural areas."
"We meet with the working groups once a week and every other week we bring together the donor agencies and the government agencies," he says. "The government side is chaired by the deputy prime minister, the donor side by myself. We discuss the progress of the reform, we discuss bottlenecks, we discuss issues."
The government in this remote country has already changed laws on animal quarantine and seed production to meet international standards.
Shukrullo Rahimnazarov, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, describes the state of play this way: "We no longer have a state sector in Tajikistan agriculture. Our work is only to support the private sector, which has a significant role to play in our goal to reach food security."