Monday, February 23, 2015

OxCARRE Trip to Azerbaijan

From 20 to 24 February, Gerhard Tows, Thomas Nielsen (LSE) and Wessel Vermeulen joined a group of researchers and practitioners, many associated with the Centre for Euro-Asian studies at Reading University, for a workshop on "Sustainable development in resource rich countries" at Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan. The workshop was made possible through support of the British Council in Azerbaijan.

During the conference we discussed with students, professors, representatives of SOFAZ (The sovereign wealth fund of Azerbaijan) and SOCAR (the state energy company) on matters such as development of resources, governance, macroeconomic management and international linkages. The delegation from the UK was able to offer new and critical views on the current state of knowledge on how to manage resources in a country such as Azerbaijan, while our hosts were able to highlight how Azerbaijan is coping with the large increase of revenues in recent years and the current situation where revenues are expected to decline rapidly in line with the fall of the oil price. Additionally, it was an occasion to share research ideas and methods with the potential of future collaborations and joined-projects between researchers from universities in the UK and Azerbaijan.

The city of Baku is an almost surreal mixture of new property development, large and modern architectural structures, with a carefully renovated historic centre, whereas only a few kilometres out of the centre gives a picture on what is probably the situation of the large majority of the people of Baku and supposedly the rest of the country. A distinctively less wealthy part of town, around soviet-era structures, but an also more lively buzz on the streets and around small shops and teahouses.

In the short time we were in Baku, and given the time left after the main sessions we were able to taste a little from the new Baku and how people view the development of Azerbaijan as an important oil and gas supplier for Europe. There is proudness in this thought but also acknowledgement of the often inefficient ways the riches are used in domestic spending and investment, and disappointment in the way that critical views are under-appreciated. The government of Azerbaijan has a large responsibility to shoulder. We hope that with our visit to the country we have contributed positively, if only in a small way, in showing how it can find the best way of using its new found riches for the benefit of the entire population.

For more information on Azerbaijan and its natural resources, see the NRGI website, which offers plenty of new developments. For instance, the country risks being expelled from the EITI program soon after having severely cracked down on voices from civil society that had critical views of the government. A country report [] on Azerbaijan from RevenueWatch, now NRGI, gives a fairly good overview of the situation, including recommendations the country has received from various international organisations and independent institutions.

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