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Central Asia: Potential and Opportunities of Investment

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Central Asia is a heart of the world and in order to control the world, the region should be under the control of a power. Historically, it is tied with its nomadic and silk route. It is a crossroad for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Muslims land and Europe, China and India. In the 19thcentury, there was a competition between Britain and Imperial Russia to establish influence in the region and it might have been an effort for global balancing. The influence of British gradually rose while Russia declined with the humiliating defeat by Japan in1905. After the World War I, Imperial Russia collapsed ironically and was able to re-infuse itself as USSR with Central Asia as five provinces. From the World War II, USSR controlled Caucuses and Central Asia and was able to preserve its dominance in the region until 1991.Post disintegration of USSR, Central Asia appeared in to five autonomous states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan that are land-locked and require the cooperation of neighboring countries for accessing world markets. The region, which is located in Eurasia and heartland, increased its geopolitical importance. The Region is volatile in nature with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan only having relative stability. Although they have shown some economic growth, the other Central Asian economies are slim and petite.

Governance in the regional states has been continuously showing elitist pattern with being less responsive to popular aspirations. There is a constant factor in their foreign policies, which is the quest for security and for economic advantage. At the social level, the influential criminal groups have grown across the region, with rampant corruption, narcotics, poverty, and terrorism threatens all five states in Central Asia. Much of the state apparatuses are inherited from socialism- literacy, workers, infrastructure etc. The force structures and military thinking, inherited from soviet, is not compatible with modern Western systems. Contemporary Central Asian leadership has three primary concerns: maintaining power, fighting internal resistance and of development of autonomous economy..From the strategic prospect, the region is significant for geopolitical interest to China, Russia and United States. The region of estimated proven natural gas reserves are 232 trillion cubic feet comparable to Saudi Arabia. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan possess about 100 trillion cubic feet and Uzbekistan 65 trillion cubic feet, Region’s oil reserves are 17.49 billion barrels. Kazakhstan has regions ‘largest proven oil reserves.

Central Asia states are seeking investment but the international community is more focusing on geopolitics than investment. The regional sates are pursuing cooperation and opportunities among themselves. The improved political cooperation and stability among Central Asian states also has opened opportunities of investment growing economies particularly for China and India. The region has two trump cards of educated youth and abundance of natural resources with stale and secure environment for foreign investors. The two rapid growing markets China and India are interested in the regional energy and mineral resources. Both the countries have developed close relationship with Central Asian states. Post reforms era, China has made progress in investment driven model for the manufacturing and investment beyond the border. Therefore, China has vast scope of investment in Central Asia. ‘OBOR’ project is a game changer investment of China in the region has introduced the region as a transit corridor for the Asia, Europe and Russia.

The region has promising investment potential in the fields of petrochemical, agriculture and tourism. These three sectors have low-level of foreign direct investment but with the great determination and priority of governments, it may be boasted. The region has a verity of petrochemical and agriculture commodities and raw material for processing to value the regional economy. The region also has potential to serve in both domestic and international meat market. Italy has invested in beef industry of Kazakhstan and has been earning much from several years. Another area of investment is a textile industry, which has immense opportunities of cotton and wool production. The Central Asian states have the same Soviet past but follow different directions for development aspirations.

Tajikistan is a more attractive country for the cross border investors due to its favorable environment for investment. The government is directing foreign investment to install new industries and modernize old industries. Aluminum, cotton, energy and tourism reveal potential of investment and attract foreign investors toward Tajikistan. The foreign direct investment in Tajikistan has increased from $270 to 317 million in 2018. According to the report of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Foreign Direct Investment stock in the country was 42.7 billion in 2018.The major investors are China, Russia United Kingdome and America have invested in energy and banking sectors. Chinese companies are investing in agro, tourism, hydropower and steel production sectors of Tajikistan. From the last two years, it has invested more than $3 billion in the country. According to the report of Chamber of Commerce of Tajikistan, China wants to create industrial enterprise with progressive technology and equipment.

Kazakhstan is the largest economy of Central Asia, which shares 70% of total investment in the region. According to National Bank of Kazakhstan, the foreign direct investment has increased by 9.8% with the amount of $4.1billion in 2018. The main areas of investment are transport, mining, trade finance, information technology, communication and insurance. Last year, 17.2% investment in fixed asset has increased. A significant growth in industry 27.1%, construction 20.6%, real estate 20.1% and agriculture 14.2% is also calculated. The government has arranged a list of $10.6 billion projects and has made legislation in permit system, taxation and custom system to attract investment in the country. The migration and visa process has been relaxed and the citizens of 62 countries can and travel Kazakhstan easily.

Uzbekistan has introduced visa for three years sin march 2019 for the participant of foreign investment companies. Furthermore, the foreign investors who invest more than $3billion can get residence permit for ten years. Within a one day, a certificate of origin of goods will be issued to foreign traders. With the participant of international financial institutions, 89 projects were launched in 2019. Then 31 project of more than $3billion are also planned with the help of World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Banks are able to open account for those who are Uzbek residents and businessperson with the requirement of FATF.

Turkmenistan is isolated country of six million people with rich natural gas reservoirs. The government tightly controls any foreign activities monitoring very closely. Visa system is very complicated but the businesspersons and investors are frequent. The business environment does not support foreigners because Turkmen language has long been in isolation. Therefore, businesspersons have to rely on English language for the business activities in Turkmenistan. However, international investors have shown their interest in investment and trade with Turkmenistan. The country has potential of investment in the sectors of agriculture, energy, construction and transport. The Foreign Direct Investment stock was $36 billion in 2018 of 81.6% of GDP. China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the main investors in Turkmenistan. Due to development of market economy, Turkmenistan has planned to raise investment in fixed assets $65.72 billion by 2025, which will facilitate manufacturing sector and will create many jobs in the country.

Kyrgyzstan is the landlocked, mountainous with an economy of agriculture, minerals and reliance on workforce abroad. Cotton, wool and meat are main agricultural products. Other sources of income are gold, mercury, uranium and natural gas. The country attracts foreign investment in construction of dames, mining, gas production and agriculture sectors but most of the investment goes to mining industry but due to conflicts between local population and investors in few districts of Kyrgyzstan the flow of investment decreased. The country is facing few challenges to the Foreign Direct Investment, the economy minister Oleg Pankartov has stated, “main problem is the lack of land plots to implement investment project due to limited resources”. He further added, “there are difficulties of land transformation and limited energy capacity and poor infrastructure”. That is why; the Foreign Direct Investment flow decreased 31.5% in 2018. The main investors in Kyrgyzstan are Britain, China, Canada, Kazakhstan and Russia. In 2019, the World Bank reported the rank of the country is 70th out of 190 countries. Kyrgyzstan is among those who have made progress in terms of investment and protection. The trade with neighbor countries has boasted. However, the country has wide potential in investment, to make contract and of payments.

In short, Central Asia is a top investment destination in the world. The most investment is in the natural gas, hydrocarbon and metal sector to extraction, processing to transportation. The other destinations for Foreign Direct Investment in the region are service sectors real estate development, agriculture, trade, communications, labor, expertise, technology, manufacturing and infrastructure development. China, European Union and Russia are major investors in the regional countries. Chinese investment is growing quickly in all economies of the region. Other key factor of investment inflow is the rate of return on investment that seems positive. In other words, to get long-term benefit from the investment, Central Asian countries must allow investors to benefit too.

PhD Scholar (Political Science) The Islamia University, Bahawalpur Lecturer at Heritage International College Arifwala

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Economy

The Blazing Revival of Bitcoin: BITO ETF Debuts as the Second-Highest Traded Fund

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It seems like bitcoin is as resilient as a relentless pandemic: persistent and refusing to stay down. Not long ago, the crypto-giant lost more than half of its valuation in the aftermath of a brutal crackdown by China. Coupled with pessimism reflected by influencers like Elon Musk, the bitcoin plummeted from the all-time high valuation of $64,888.99 to flirt around the $30,000 mark in mere weeks. However, over the course of the last four months, the behemoth of the crypto-market gradually climbed to reclaim its supremacy. Today, weaving through national acceptance to market recognition, bitcoin could be the gateway to normalizing the elusive crypto-world in the traditional global markets: particularly the United States.

The recent bullish development is the launch of the ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF – the first Bitcoin-linked exchange-traded fund – on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading under the ticker BITO, the Bitcoin ETF welcomed a robust trading day: rising 4.9% to $41.94. According to the data compiled by Bloomberg, BITO’s debut marked it as the second-highest traded fund, behind BlackRock’s Carbon fund, for the first day of trading. With a turnover of almost $1 billion, the listing of BITO highlighted the demand for reliable investment in bitcoin in the US market. According to estimates on Tuesday, More than 24 million shares changed hands while BITO was one of the most-bought assets on Fidelity’s platform with more than 8,800 buy orders.

The bitcoin continued to rally, cruising over the lucrative launch of BITO. The digital currency rose to $64,309.33 on Tuesday: less than 1% below the all-time high valuation. In hindsight, the recovery seems commendable. The growing acceptance, albeit, has far more consequential attributes. The cardinal benefit is apparent: evidence of gradual acceptance by regulators. “The launch of ProShares’ bitcoin ETF on the NYSE provides the validation that some investors need to consider adding BTC to their portfolio,” stated Hong Fang, CEO of Okcoin. In simpler terms, not only would the listing allow relief to the crypto loyalists (solidifying their belief in the currency), but it would also embolden investors on the sidelines who have long been deterred by regulatory uncertainty. Thus, bringing larger, more rooted institutional investors into the crypto market: along with a surge of capital.

However, the surging acceptance may be diluting the rudimentary phenomenon of bitcoin. While retail investors would continue to participate in the notorious game of speculation via trading bitcoin, the opportunity to gain indirect exposure to bitcoin could divert the risk-averse investors. It means many loyalists could retract and direct towards BITO and other imminent bitcoin-linked ETFs instead of setting up a digital custodianship. Ultimately, it boils down to Bitcoin ETFs being managed by third parties instead of the investor: relenting control to a centralized figure. Moreover, with growing scrutiny under the eye of SECP, the steps vaguely intimate a transition to harness the market instead of liberalizing it: quiet oxymoronic to the entire decentralized model of cryptocurrencies.

Nonetheless, the listing of BITO is an optimistic development that would draw skeptics to at least observe the rampant popularity of the asset class. While the options on BITO are expected to begin trading on the NYSE Arca Options and NYSE American Options exchanges on Wednesday, other futures-based Bitcoin ETFs are on the cards. The surging popularity (and reluctant acceptance) amid tightening regulation could prove a turn of an era for the US capital markets. However, as some critics have cited, BITO is not a spot-based ETF and is instead linked to futures contracts. Thus, the restrain is still present as the regulators do not want a repeat of the financial crisis. Nevertheless, bitcoin has proved its deterrence in the face of skepticism. And if the BITO launch is to be marveled at, then the regulations are bound to adapt to the revolution that is unraveling in the modern financial reality.

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Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational corporations?

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Business at a crossroads

Political reforms in Myanmar started in November 2010 followed by the release of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended by the coup d’état in February 2021. Business empire run by the military generals thanks to the fruitful benefits of democratic transition during the last decade will come to an end with the return of trade and diplomatic sanctions from the western countries – United States (US) and members of European Union (EU).  US and EU align with other major international partners quickly responded and imposed sanctions over the military’s takeover and subsequent repression in Myanmar. These measures targeted not only the conglomerates of the military generals  but also the individuals who have been appointed in the authority positions and supporting the military regime.

However, the generals and their cronies own the majority of economic power both in strategic sectors ranging from telecommunication to oil & gas and in non-strategic commodity sectors such as food and beverages, construction materials, and the list goes on. It is a tall order for the investors to do business by avoiding this lucrative network of the military across the country. After the coup, it raises the most puzzling issue to investors and corporate giants in this natural resource-rich country, “Should I stay or Should I go?”

Crimes against humanity

For most of the people in the country, war crimes and atrocities committed by the military are nothing new. For instances, in 1988, student activists led a political movement and tried to bring an end to the military regime of the general Ne Win. This movement sparked a fire and grew into a nationwide uprising in a very short period but the military used lethal force and slaughtered thousands of civilian protestors including medical doctors, religious figures, student leaders, etc. A few months later, the public had no better options than being silenced under barbaric torture and lawless killings of the regime.

In 2007, there was another major protest called ‘Saffron Uprising’ against the military regime led by the Buddhist monks. It was actually the biggest pro-democracy movement since 1988 and the atmosphere of the demonstration was rather peaceful and non-violent before the military opened live ammunitions towards the crowd full of monks. Everything was in chaos for a couple of months but it ended as usual.

In 2017, the entire world witnessed one of the most tragic events in Myanmar – Again!. The reports published by the UN stated that hundreds of civilians were killed, dozens of villages were burnt down, and over 700,000 people including the majority of Rohingya were displaced to neighboring countries because of the atrocities committed by the military in the western border of the country. After four years passed, the repatriation process and the safety return of these refugees to their places of origin are yet unknown. Most importantly, there is no legal punishment for those who committed and there is no transitional justice for those who suffered in the aforementioned examples of brutalities.

The vicious circle repeated in 2021. With the economy in free fall and the deadliest virus at doorsteps, the people are still unbowed by the oppression of the junta and continue demanding the restoration of democracy and justice. To date, Assistant Association for Political Prisoner (AAPP) reported that due to practicing the rights to expression, 1178 civilians were killed and 7355 were arrested, charged or sentenced by the military junta. Unfortunately, the numbers are still increasing.

Call for economic disengagement

In 2019, the economic interests of the military were disclosed by the report of UN Fact-Finding Mission in which Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) were described as the prominent entities controlled by the military profitable through the almost-monopoly market in real estate, insurance, health care, manufacturing, extractive industry and telecommunication. It also mentioned the list of foreign businesses in partnership with the military-linked activities which includes Adani (India), Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong).

Moreover, Justice for Myanmar, a non-profit watchdog organization, revealed the specific facts and figures on how the billions of revenues has been pouring into the pockets of the high-ranked officers in the military in 2021. Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE), an another military-controlled authority body, is the key player handling the financial transactions, profit sharing, and contractual agreements with the international counterparts including Total (France), Chevron (US), PTTEP (Thailand), Petronas (Malaysia), and Posco (South Korea) in natural gas projects. It is also estimated that the military will enjoy 1.5 billion USD from these energy giants in 2022.

Additionally, data shows that the corporate businesses currently operating in Myanmar has been enriching the conglomerates of the generals and their cronies as a proof to the ongoing debate among the public and scholars, “Do sanctions actually work?” Some critics stressed that sanctions alone might be difficult to pressure the junta without any collaborative actions from Moscow and Beijing, the longstanding allies of the military. Recent bilateral visits and arm deals between Nay Pyi Taw and Moscow dimmed the hope of the people in Myanmar. It is now crystal clear that the Burmese military never had an intention to use the money from multinational corporations for benefits of its citizens, but instead for buying weapons, building up military academies, and sending scholars to Russia to learn about military technology. In March 2021, the International Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar reiterated its recommendation for the complete economic disengagement as a response to the coup, “No business enterprise active in Myanmar or trading with or investing in businesses in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw [the military], or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members…”

Blood money and ethical dilemma

In the previous military regime until 2009, the US, UK and other democratic champion countries imposed strict economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar while maintaining ‘carrot and stick’ approach against the geopolitical dominance of China. Even so, energy giants such as Total (France) and Chevron (US), and other ‘low-profile’ companies from ASEAN succeeded in running their operations in Myanmar, let alone the nakedly abuses of its natural resources by China. Doing business in this country at the time of injustice is an ethical question to corporate businesses but most of them seems to prefer maximizing the wealth of their shareholders to the freedom of its bottom millions in poverty.

But there are also companies not hesitating to do something right by showing their willingness not to be a part of human right violations of the regime. For example, Australian mining company, Woodside, decided not to proceed further operations, and ‘get off the fence’ on Myanmar by mentioning that the possibility of complete economical disengagement has been under review. A breaking news in July, 2021  that surprised everyone was the exit of Telenor Myanmar – one of four current telecom operators in the country. The CEO of the Norwegian company announced that the business had been sold to M1 Group, a Lebanese investment firm, due to the declining sales and ongoing political situations compromising its basic principles of human rights and workplace safety.

In fact, cutting off the economic ties with the junta and introducing a unified, complete economic disengagement become a matter of necessity to end the consistent suffering of the people of Myanmar. Otherwise, no one can blame the people for presuming that international community is just taking a moral high ground without any genuine desire to support the fight for freedom and pro-democracy movement.

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The Covid After-Effects and the Looming Skills Shortage

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coronavirus people

The shock of the pandemic is changing the ways in which we think about the world and in which we analyze the future trajectories of development. The persistence of the Covid pandemic will likely accentuate this transformation and the prominence of the “green agenda” this year is just one of the facets of these changes. Market research as well as the numerous think-tanks will be accordingly re-calibrating the time horizons and the main themes of analysis. Greater attention to longer risks and fragilities is likely to take on greater prominence, with particular scrutiny being accorded to high-impact risk factors that have a non-negligible probability of materializing in the medium- to long-term. Apart from the risks of global warming other key risk factors involve the rising labour shortages, most notably in areas pertaining to human capital development.

The impact of the Covid pandemic on the labour market will have long-term implications, with “hysteresis effects” observed in both highly skilled and low-income tiers of the labour market. One of the most significant factors affecting the global labour market was the reduction in migration flows, which resulted in the exacerbation of labour shortages across the major migrant recipient countries, such as Russia. There was also a notable blow delivered by the pandemic to the spheres of human capital development such as education and healthcare, which in turn exacerbated the imbalances and shortages in these areas. In particular, according to the estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO) shortages can mount up to 9.9 million physicians, nurses and midwives globally by 2030.

In Europe, although the number of physicians and nurses has increased in general in the region by approximately 10% over the past 10 years, this increase appears to be insufficient to cover the needs of ageing populations. At the same time the WHO points to sizeable inequalities in the availability of physicians and nurses between countries, whereby there are 5 times more doctors in some countries than in others. The situation with regard to nurses is even more acute, as data show that some countries have 9 times fewer nurses than others.

In the US substantial labour shortages in the healthcare sector are also expected, with anti-crisis measures falling short of substantially reversing the ailments in the national healthcare system. In particular, data published by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), suggests that the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care.

The blows sustained by global education from the pandemic were no less formidable. These affected first and foremost the youngest generation of the globe – according to UNESCO, “more than 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are or have been affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. On top of the adverse effects on the younger generation (see Box 1), there is also the widening “teachers gap”, namely a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), “69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030”.

From our partner RIAC

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