The World Bank Brings Nazarbayev University to Kazakhstan

A year ago, on Dec. 15, 2011,  Kazakhstan state security forces opened fire with U.S.-supplied weapons on oil workers on strike since the preceding May for increased wages and better conditions in the Caspian Sea company town of Zhanaozen. According to the official count, 15 workers died and upwards of 70 were wounded. Unofficial accounts reported much higher number of casualties.  Several hundred miles to the east in the capital, Astana, business went on as usual that day for the Western faculty members and administrators at the recently built multi-billion dollar Nazarbayev University, a joint venture involving the country’s authoritarian regime, the World Bank, and a number of major, primarily US “partnering” universities. This is the first of a three-part series, stimulated by news of the “Zhanaozen Massacre” and initial word of “global university” dealings in Kazakhstan.

Part One

A number of prestigious, primarily U.S.-based universities are quietly working with the authoritarian regime in  Kazakhstan under the dictatorial rule of the country’s “Leader for Life,” Nursultan Nazarbayev.

In a project largely shaped and brokered by the World Bank in 2009 and  2010, the regime sealed deals with some ten major U.S. and British universities and scientific research institutes. They’ve been tasked to design and guide the specialized colleges at the country’s newly constructed showcase university.

As a result, scores of academics have flocked to the resource rich, strategically located country four times the size of Texas. They remain there despite the fact that every major international human rights monitor has cited the Nazarbayev regime for its continuing abuse of  civil liberties and basic freedoms.

Kazakhstan now serves as a key hub for the application of the World Bank’s “knowledge bank” agenda, a vivid case study of the far-reaching nature of a corporate – and by extension, imperial – higher education agenda.

The “Number-One Priority”

In his annual address to the nation in 2006, Nazarbayev called for the establishment of “a unique academic environment” and the “need to create a prestigious, world-class university” in order to improve the resource rich country’s economic ranking internationally.

The central Atrium of NU’s campus, fully enclosed, “like a shopping mall in the United States, with roads and buildings inside…”

Work on the $2 billion dollar campus at Astana, the country’s ostentatious new showcase capital, began in 2007.

The planners of what was initially dubbed the “New University of Astana” designed it from its inception to become the centerpiece of a totally remodeled market-oriented education system fully tethered to “the West” (meaning, the national and financial interests of the US and its British junior partner). Upon opening in 2010, it
became “Nazarbayev University” (NU), named for the Soviet-era holdover and “president for life” in power since 1991.

NU’s home, Astana, the country’s new capital built since 1997 (Photograph by Gerd Ludwig)

During an October, 2009 Astana meeting regarding the then-developing U.S.-Kazakhstan Public Private Economic Partnership Initiative (PPEPI), the U.S Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Krol and National Security Council Director for Central Asia, Kurt Donnelly, Kazakhstan Deputy Prime Minister Yerbol Orynbayev stated that besides Astana, the University was “the government’s number one priority.”

Additionally, a February 2010 diplomatic cable from Astana to Washington referred to the university as a key component of an “entirely new  educational system in Kazakhstan and Central Asia based on the U.S. model, to prepare students for Kazakhstan’s social and economic challenges.” The school, as of March 2010, was projecting an eventual enrollment of 20,000.

The Partners

The list of elite institutions that came to hold “strategic partner” contracts with the regime – most of which regularly portray themselves as bulwarks of academic freedom of expression and inquiry, liberal tolerance, “ethical conduct” and the rule of law –  is long and impressive.

A team from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) helped design the administrative workings and governance procedures. Carnegie Mellon University and its global subsidiary, iCarnegie landed a Bank-brokered contract to help run the School of Science and Technology.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, famed for its “Wisconsin Idea” progressive tradition but now apparently untroubled by the repressive nature of the Nazarbayev regime, designed the workings of the NU School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Globally ambitious Duke University received the contract to set up and jointly operate the NU Graduate School of Business, while the University of Pittsburgh is involved with the Center for Life Sciences.

Harvard University, with prestigious faculty from its Kennedy School of Government and Business School such as management “guru” Michael Porter already involved in shaping the regime’s post-Soviet development path, entered an agreement to establish NU’s medical school. Two U.S. Department of Energy National Labs — the University of Chicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory and the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory — are now operating out of the campus’ new research facilities.

Other partners include the UK’s elite University College London (UCL), centrally involved with the country’s ongoing education reform efforts, and NU’s “strategic partner,” Cambridge University, a co-partner in the NU Graduate School of Education. Experts from the National University of Singapore, far from their authoritarian home, have helped create and manage NU’s recently launched Graduate School of Public Policy.

(Lack of) Human Rights

With representatives from the various partnering institutions present, Nazarbayev spoke at NUs formal launch in June 2010. He expressed hope that the new venture would become the “national brand of Kazakhstan” and gave his godfatherly advice to the first incoming class.

“Young people should seek studying here…,” he told them. “I agreed it [the university] to be named after me, so don’t let me down.

  “Leader-of-Nation” Nazarbayev greets new students at his namesake university

A compliant press corps got the message. After all, Nazarbayev family members or cronies control or own the dominant media while independent journalists are subjected to prohibitive libel and defamation judgment fines. It currently is against the law to write anything broadly defined as “defamatory” about Nazarbayev, his family or leading government officials. Critical reporters are jailed and physically attacked, while offices of opposition newspapers get shut down, vandalized and even firebombed.

Understating the case, a 2011 U.S. State Department report on Kazakhstan’s Human Rights Practices, described the country as having “significant human rights problems” including “…restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; and lack of an independent judiciary and due process, especially in dealing with pervasive corruption and law enforcement and judicial abuse.”

Transparency International this year ranked the country as “not free” while Freedom House gave it a worsening “democracy score” of 6.54 (with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest.)

Additional monitors such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long criticized the regime for its violations of international standards regarding workers’ rights, routine repression of political opposition , impunity of the police, and intimidation and torture of those detained and imprisoned. The mistreatment of immigrants, exploitation of child labor and human trafficking in the country continue to be documented. Recent legislation has placed further limits on freedom of religion.

Critics have characterized the regime as an outright kleptocracy that has siphoned off billions to Nazarbayev and his immediate circles. Corruption and bribery at all levels of government, the judiciary included, are cited as “a part of doing business” in the country, with every seventh borrower paying a bribe to secure a loan, according to a Feb. 2012 in-country poll.

Bribery of administrators and instructors for admission and grades throughout the education system are an established practice and apparently occur at NU despite newly instituted “best practices,” as suggested by comments appended to a recent online piece.

U.S. Universities and the “Great Game” The Nazarbayev University project must be placed in a broader context of international competition and imperial interest. Kazakhstan sits atop vast reserves of oil and gas, uranium, and additional mineral wealth in an era of increasing competition for diminishing energy sources.

With its 4,200 mile border with Russia to the north and a 1,100 mile frontier with China to the east, and Iran to the southwest across the Caspian Sea, the country has taken on an increasing strategic importance for the U.S.

Myriad multinational corporations have scrambled to Kazakhstan for investment opportunities surrounding the development of the country’s raw material wealth, infrastructure, financial services and “human capital.” International financial institutions also arrived early on, with the World Bank setting up shop in the former capital, Almaty, in 1992.

The Nazarbayev regime developed a shrewd “multi-vector” foreign policy, which has worked to counterbalance the competing interests of the country’s powerful neighbors, Russia and China, with those of the U.S.

Major universities, then, have come on board in their own highly competitive “Great Game” scramble. The academy’s modern-day missionaries have flocked to Astana bearing promises of progress and development through a new “knowledge economy.”

Enter the “Knowledge Bank”

The World Bank in late-2007 proposed plans to upgrade and “commercialize” the nation’s research and development efforts. Part of the Bank’s blueprint called for the creation of a network of university-housed, market-oriented research and development centers based primarily on U.S. models. Subsequent World Bank proposals for the revamping of the country’s technical and vocational education followed suit.

NU arose via a number of direct initiatives closely coordinated by the World Bank, these days re-branded as the ‘‘Knowledge Bank” set on a mission to eliminate global poverty through market-centric “education reform” efforts akin to those occurring in the U.S.

The Bank’s original architects structured it from its inception during World War II to assure U.S. financial interests reigned supreme in shaping the post-war economic order. Working in tandem with other international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), its loan “conditionalities” and “structural adjustment” austerity demands actually functioned to increase national debt and deepen economic inequality across the “developing world” in the 1970s and 1980s, the forerunner of what today is referred to as the “shock doctrine.”

Beginning in mid-1990s under the presidency of James Wolfensohn and his chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz, the Bank gradually recast itself as a development agency. In a sharp turn away from narrow financial “make you an offer you can’t refuse” notions of economic development, it moved toward strategies of broader societal change emphasizing “non-lending technical assistance.”

It became less interested in loans for major infrastructural projects than in the creation of programs and policy; what Bank critic Paul Cammack has described as a form of “deep interventionism.”
That is, the fundamental transformation of society and institutions through “country ownership” and “participation” in the restructuring and full integration of potential centers of economic growth and strategic value on behalf of corporate and imperial interests.

Understanding “knowledge” both as a source of power and as an increasingly valuablecommodity, the “Knowledge Bank” also came to emphasize the benefits gained from “knowledge transfers” to and from the centers of a globalized “knowledge economy.”

That pivot toward higher education had to overcome one major hurdle, however. A financial institution, the Bank has never explicitly been in the business of higher education. It turned for assistance to those major universities, the home of countless education policy planners and think-tank experts all eager to enter the new frontiers of the “global knowledge market.”

The Bank’s education advisors and hired consultants are now busily transforming whole societies through the introduction of seemingly neutral “best practices.” Elizabeth Ocampo and Dean Neu, critics of the “Knowledge Bank” education strategies, have compared its operatives and consultants to the colonial “missionaries” of an earlier era:

…If we exchange the black robe of the missionary for a pin-stripe suit — each a symbol of power — and the Bible for a bank ledger, with globalization as the holy grail, we may not be far off from an acceptable analogy of how the World Bank operates today…[Its] practices…are not to be questioned by the congregation. Under the guise of knowing what is best for the people of the borrower country, [their] sacred rites are clearly designed to introduce particular forms of behaviour…

Closing the “Skills Gap”

With its fabulous oil and mineral wealth and the most advanced industrial base in Central Asia, Kazakhstan appeared ripe for the sorts of “non-lending technical assistance” offered by the Bank, despite (or perhaps because of) the authoritarian but stable nature of its regime.

What better environment to work out a strategy for the retooling of society-at-large than an authoritarian petro-state with plenty of its own cash on hand?

The country, starting in the mid-2000s, became a crucible of sorts, a proving ground for the Bank’s “knowledge economy” initiatives. Bank planners saw it as a place to work out new strategies in a relatively well-off “middle income country,” one not so much in need of massive loans as an unhidden hand of expertise and guidance in development.

At the same time, major multinationals on the scene from the mid-1990s regularly noted a “skills gap” – an insufficient supply of up-to-date technicians, engineers, scientists and professional managerial types capable of filling increasing demand.


According to the Bank, it received a formal request from the country’s Ministry of Education and Science (MOES) in 2008 to assist in the construction of the then-dubbed “New University at Astana.” But Bank involvement began long before then.

The Bank’s “knowledge economy” specialists, in conjunction with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), had already published “Higher Education in Kazakhstan
in January 2007. The detailed 226-page report diagnosed problems with the country’s education system as an outmoded but salvageable potential growth engine in need of a major overhaul.

The report was produced by the Joint Economic Research Program (JERP), an innovative initiative based upon partnering Bank development advisors with various Kazakhstani apparatchiks.

JERP teams have looked to “provide policy analysis, strategic planning expertise, and best practice options” aimed at reorienting the country’s key economic sectors and institutions. Those efforts, already underway for almost ten years as the cornerstone of the Bank’s Country Partnership Strategy, made Kazakhstan “a pioneer in drawing on the Bank’s pool of knowledge…[and] an example to other countries.”

The 2007 higher education study, essentially a blueprint for the restructuring of Kazakhstan’s education system, provided the bases for the MOES efforts to formulate its “sector-reform strategy.”

And what was the JERP prescription for the renovation of Kazakhstani education?  A rapid transfusion of “Western” expertise, technique and new institutions built around market-driven competitiveness and “commercialization.”

The culmination of JERP took place when JERP’s Bank operatives took MOES apparatchiks on a month long, around-the-world “Partnership Development Tour” (PDT) in Feb. 2009. The PDT was the key piece of the puzzle in which the Bank demonstrated to Kazakhstani officials what NU should look like.

After completion of the Tour, NU’s move from academic concept to on-the-ground reality accelerated.

Stay tuned for more on the PDT and more in the forthcoming Part Two tomorrow on CounterPunch.

Allen Ruff is a US historian and an independent writer on foreign policy issues. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Steve Horn is a Madison, WI-based freelance investigative journalist and Research Fellow at DeSmogBlog.