The United States will provide more than $20 billion in aid to foreign nations this year. But the countries of Central Asia will receive relatively little of it.  In parts of Central Asia -- a region the United States considers a strategically important -- lack of democratic progress has led to a decline in foreign assistance in recent years.

U.S. officials say they are focused on three key issues with regard to Central Asia -- security cooperation, economic development and political reform. This year, the U.S. State Department plans to spend nearly $79 million in the region, with about $27 million going to Tajikistan, $24 million to Kyrgyzstan, $14 million to Kazakhstan, $8 million to Uzbekistan and $5.5 million to Turkmenistan.

In addition, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will receive nearly $51 million in U.S. support for democracy building programs. But Uzbekistan, which received hundreds-of-millions of dollars in aid for its support in the war against terror soon after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, has seen a gradual decline in aid in recent years.

U.S. Concerns

The U.S. Congress has voiced increased concern over Uzbek President Islam Karimov's human rights policies and slow progress toward political and economic reforms. Thomas Adams, U.S. Coordinator for Assistance to Europe and Eurasia, says the Uzbek government has become increasingly concerned about American aid projects, including media development and democracy building programs.

"We think that our assistance still has a place in Uzbekistan. And we want to do it openly and with trust on both sides and try to get over some of the mistrust that has emerged over the past few years," says Adams.

USAID's Effort

The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, has been working throughout Central Asia since the early 1990s to promote education, health care and the development of civil society.

Bob Wallin, who manages the Central Asia desk at USAID says, "We do not provide budget support or money to governments. We provide technical assistance and training and advice. What we hope is that at some point in the not too distant future that it becomes their own activity, their own priority, their own project and they have the capacity to continue after U.S. assistance ends."

But dozens of U.S.-funded organizations, especially those engaged in building civil societies have been forced to leave Uzbekistan under pressure from the country's Justice Ministry, which has accused them of interfering in Uzbekistan's internal affairs. Local critics argue that by continuing to operate in Uzbekistan, the United States is supporting a government that does not respect human rights and democracy.

USAID's Bob Wallin disagrees, saying, "I don't believe that USAID or the U.S. government has betrayed any of its own basic principles. But there are ways in which we need to engage the government of Uzbekistan to help them understand that we do not have any ulterior motives in trying to promote the rights of the citizens or having citizens participate in determining their own future."

Challenges and Prospects

Analyst Olga Oliker of the RAND Corporation here in Washington says the United States wants to provide more assistance throughout Central Asia, but it is not easy. "It is very difficult to find ways to support a process without looking like you are supporting one or the other actor in the process. You can't support the opposition specifically, right, without functionally trying to overthrow a regime," says Oliker.

Oliker says two factors have driven U.S. assistance efforts in the region.  "One is for purely humanitarian reasons -- to try to improve people's standard of living, to respond to humanitarian disasters and so forth. Another is to advance policy goals of which democratization and economic reform have been two very important policy goals in this part of the world."

Another reason, Oliker says, is to promote America's "good name".  "It is very difficult to buy loyalty and influence with foreign assistance. Generally speaking, countries take your assistance and do not deliver on the loyalty. So if you are a wealthy country planning an assistance budget, you are probably better off trying to focus it more on concrete things you hope to achieve, rather than a long-term hope that people will be grateful," says Oliker.

Analysts say that every country has its strategic importance for the United States. But Central Asia expert Sean Roberts of Georgetown University argues that few people in the White House or in Congress understand the challenges in Central Asia. "Part of the problem with Central Asia is that it is a mystery to most people in the United States. Therefore, there is not a lot of attention paid by the Americans toward the region," says Roberts. 

Roberts notes that in his travels to Central Asia, he often hears people asking for more U.S. assistance. For Central Asian countries to develop strong economies and democracies, most experts agree that the United States needs to continue investing in the region. But they say the benefits of foreign aid also depend on the actions of the recipients. Assistance can do wonders, they say, but not without the will for political change coming from within.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.