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Armenia: Human Capital Investments are the Key to Resilient Growth in the Era of COVID-19

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Photo Credit: World Bank Office Yerevan

Following the launch of the Human Capital Project in 2018, the government of Armenia and the World Bank undertook a systematic diagnosis of the constraints to human capital development. We report our findings in Survive, Learn, Thrive: Strategic Human Capital Investments Toward a More Prosperous and Inclusive Armenia, which identifies catalytic investments that can help Armenia’s children and youth compete in the global marketplace of tomorrow.

Fadia M. Saadah, World Bank Human Development Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, reflects on the opportunity to build back better in the era of COVID-19 through human capital formation and activation in Armenia.

Q. What do you see as the main challenges facing human capital formation and activation in Armenia?

In many ways, Armenia has made significant improvementsin ensuring health and learning through access to services. Enrollment in primary and middle school is above 90 percent, 100 percent of childbirths are attended by a skilled health care provider, and improvements in targeting of social transfers have helped reduce poverty and increased access to education and health care in low-income households. Between 1990 and 2017, life expectancy increased from 73.3 years to 78.7 years for women and from 66.7 years to 72.4 years for men.

There is still room for improvement, however. Armenia’s Human Capital Index is 0.58, meaning that a child born today in Armenia would be 58 percent as productive as she could have been as an adult if she had enjoyed full health and had benefited from a complete education. Learning outcomes also vary widely by gender and income, high out-of-pocket payments reduce access to health care services, and labor market programs that are necessary to activate human capital are few and small-scale.

The gains of the past two decades are at risk because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is projected to lead to a contraction of real gross domestic product of 6.3 percent in 2020. Poverty rates are projected to rise and competing needs for public spending will reduce fiscal space for health and education.

Q. What strategic investments do you recommend in the short and medium term for Armenia to confront the challenge of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic while investing in human capital development?

The report highlights the importance of human capital investments for economic growth in Armenia. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the objective of reforming health, education, social protection, and jobs systems is linked to the urgent task of increasing resilience to future shocks.

In the health sector, doing so will involve establishing comprehensive surveillance systems, investing in quality primary health care, and reforming health financing to ensure that people have access to services through a financing scheme that provides incentives to reduce out-of-pocket payments and improve health. COVID also revealed the important role for technology in the social sectors. Telemedicine and other digital tools, for example, offer opportunities to close gaps in physical access to care during and after the pandemic.

The COVID pandemic created challenge for and risks to learning outcomes, which will have long-term impact on human capital. There is an urgent need to recover the losses in learning. Health protocols that prevent the spread of infections will need to be implemented so that schools can reopen safely.

At the same time, Armenia will need to support teachers with training and other tools to provide high-quality distance learning. Counselling, academic remediation, and financial incentives can help keep children and young people enrolled in schools and improve learning outcomes.

To ensure that no families are left behind, Armenia can build on the successes of the social protection system through the integrated social case manager program, which links poor and vulnerable households with social services. Jobs are another vehicle for activating human capital. Continued efforts to equip the workforce with skills that match evolving labor demand and job-matching interventions are important. A range of mechanisms, including web-based jobs portals, can link job seekers to employers in high-productivity sectors.

The report follows the narrative of a hypothetical family, the Harutyunyan’s, whose health, learning, and employment outcomes significantly improve with the implementation of catalytic human capital investments. It shows that if Armenia ensured complete education and healthcare, long-run per capita gross domestic product could be 1.75 times higher than it is today. Armenia is an early adopter of the Human Capital Project, an indication of the strong political commitment to rise to the challenge.

Q. The World Bank has partnered with Armenia on landmark reforms since independence. How do you see the engagement evolving over the next few years?

The report provides a starting point for developing, planning, and financing an intersectoral agenda to harness human capital. The World Bank Group remains committed to providing technical and financial support for operationalizing and implementing this ambitious strategy. We highlight important areas of engagement in education, health, social protection, and jobs below.

Education: The ongoing Education Improvement Project (EIP) is supporting the government’s efforts to create a network of stakeholders for accelerating knowledge creation and innovation; teach students job-relevant skills; and remove barriers to labor market participation, through increased access to early childhood education and care in rural areas to support working mothers.

A project funded by the European Union (EU4Innovation Project) that is being implemented with World Bank support contributes to the government’s efforts to develop and pilot modern teaching approaches, with the potential to be scaled up where successful. The project will also help identify cost-efficient interventions to address bottlenecks that prevent students from enrolling and performing well in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects.

Health: World Bank Group engagement in health dates to 1997, with the Health Financing and Primary Health Care Development Project. The ongoing Disease Prevention and Control Project (DPCP) supports the government’s efforts to strengthen the prevention, early detection, and management of selected noncommunicable diseases at the primary health care level and increase the efficiency and quality of selected hospitals.

The DPCP also facilitates the emergency procurement of equipment and supplies for case management, as part of the COVID-19 response. Officials at the highest levels of government in Armenia recognize the urgent need for investments in health services to improve quality and ensure that every citizen has access to essential health care.

Toward that end, the World Bank Group has worked closely with counterparts to engage on policy issues and provide technical support in areas such as reforms to improve purchasing decisions and public financial management, strengthen primary healthcare, ensure integration between primary and specialist care, and inform efforts to expand fiscal space for health. This support can inform the next generation of reforms in Armenia, a country that is considered an innovator in health reforms among the former Soviet republics.

Social Protection and Labor: The ongoing Social Protection and Administration Project (SPAP II) supports the government’s efforts to create integrated service centers; develop monitoring and evaluation systems to administer social protection programs; and establish a unified information system to facilitate program management, monitoring, and evidence-based policy and decision making.

Through the Japan Social Development Fund, the World Bank Group is working with the government to upgrade Armenia’s social case management methodology and operational procedures. It is also providing small business grants to poor and vulnerable individuals to facilitate their graduation from public support and self-sufficiency.

Ongoing technical assistance and policy dialogue will continue to support better targeting of social assistance; the digitalization of social protection payment systems; and policies to support the integration into the labor market of returning migrants, women, and other vulnerable groups. 

World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Crisis in Armenia Provides Fertile Ground for Russian Meddling

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The immediate cause came on February 25, when Onik Gasparyan, Chief of General Staff of the Armenian Army, and other senior commanders released a statement calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to step down. Pashinyan responded by firing Gasparyan.

Yet the real cause of the uproar is Armenia’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War last year, which has triggered a deeply troubled and long-drawn-out period of soul-searching and consequent instability.

Delving into the details over what are the real reasons and who is to blame may anyway be futile in the cloudy political world of all three South Caucasus states (including Georgia and its current woes). While many Armenians believe that the protests are more about internal democratic processes, there is an undeniable geopolitical context too. Perhaps what matters most is the international ramifications of the conflict, especially as the early phases of the Russian-brokered November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan are now being implemented.

The political crisis in Armenia does not affect the implementation of the agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 26. Other statements by the Russian leadership indicated that the Kremlin, which closely follows the internal development of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) ally and the fellow member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is nevertheless remaining aloof for now.

Over the past year, Russia has confronted multiple crises along its border with some finesse, successfully managing near-simultaneous crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia-Azerbaijan.

In each case, the Kremlin has sought to extract geo-economic benefits. Take the current Armenian crisis. The opposition has some support, but not as much as the current leadership. Leaders from both sides have connections with senior Russian leaders, albeit the Kremlin was far more comfortable with the pre-Pashinyan Armenian political elite. They understood what Russia likes in the near-abroad – cautious leaders mindful of Russian sensitivities and unwilling to play the reformist and Western cards that Pahinyan has used since coming to power in 2018.

And yet however much illiberal Russia feels uncomfortable with the reformist Pashinyan government, it needs for now because his signature is on the November ceasefire agreement. With the early stages of the deal being implemented, Russia is keeping its eyes on the prize — most importantly, the agreement to reopen Soviet-era railways which potentially will reconnect Russia to Armenia via Azerbaijani territory. Chaos in Armenia can only jeopardize this key aim.

Russia also understands that Pashinyan is becoming increasingly dependent as time goes by and that it can exploit this vulnerability. Equally obviously, the opposition could prevail, and that would ultimately benefit Russia too.

In the long run, Russia has caught Armenia in a cycle. To stay in power, the government would need extensive Russian economic, diplomatic, and perhaps even military support. But any new government formed by the current opposition would likely demand even more weaponry from Russia to prepare for the next confrontation, however hypothetic, with Azerbaijan. In both cases, the price for more arms would likely be deeper integration of Armenia within the EEU. And whatever remained of Armenia’s policy efforts towards the West, already under grave pressure since the Karabakh defeat, would die.

Potentially, there is a yet-greater reward for Russia – persuading Azerbaijan to allow the Russian peacekeeping mission to remain on its soil beyond the end of 2025. In which case, an openly revanchist Armenian government formed by an opposition determined to build a battle-ready military capable of offensive operations would be a useful tool for the Kremlin to justify the continued presence of its units in Karabakh.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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Eastern Europe

Caspian: Status, Challenges, Prospects

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An Analysis into the Legal Classification, Security and Environmental Concerns, Geopolitics and Energy Flow Impact of the Caspian Plateau

How has the world’s largest inland body of (salty) water escaped the economic and political notice for so long? And it is for a resource-rich area of a unique locality that connects Europe and Asia in more than just geography. Simply, the Caspian Basin is an underrated and underexplored topic with scarce literature on its geomorphology, mineral deposits and marine biota, its legal disputes, pipeline diplomacy,environmental concerns and overall geopolitical and geo-economic interplays.

As the former Minister of the Canadian government and Secretary General of the OECD – Honorable Donald J Johnston – states in the foreword, Caspian – Status, Challenges, Prospects“is a fitting title for a book that masterfully gives an objective, comprehensive overview of the region. The authors have compiled an analysis of Caspian’s legal classification, security and environmental concerns, geopolitical scenarios, and energy flow impacts as they affect the world’s largest continental landmass – Eurasia.”

From comprehensive but content intensive insights on Caspian littoral states Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russiaand Turkmenistan, to external actors like Turkey, EU, China and the United States, readers are presented how separate actors and factors interact in this unique theater. The book elaborates on the legal classification of the Caspian plateau including the recent ‘Convention on Legal Status of the Caspian,’ to the numerous territorial and environmental security concerns.

Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic and his co-authors present Caspian as the most recent, fresh and novel way, in one stop-shop offering broad analysis on the Caspian region. It is a single volume book for which extensive information is exceptionally rare to find elsewhere. Following the read, authors are confident that a new expanse of scholarly conversation and actions of practitioners will unfold, not only focused on Caspian’s unique geography, but its overall socio-economic, politico-security and environmental scene.

Welcoming the book, following words of endorsements have been said:

The Caspian basin and adjacent Central Asian region (all being OSCE member states, apart from Iran) have, since the early Middle ages, acted as a crossroads between different civilizations and geopolitical spaces. In an increasingly interconnected world, growing geopolitical competition, economic interdependence and the emergence of new global challenges, particularly those related to water, energy and the climate emergency, have highlighted the relevance of this region, making it of increasing interest to researchers and academics. This book presents a thorough analytical compendium of historical factors, political dynamics, economic trends, legal frameworks and geopolitical interests which underpin, but also affect, the stability and development of this complex, diverse and strategically significant region.

Amb. Lamberto Zanier,Secretary-General, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (2011-2017)  OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (2017-2020)

A thoughtful, comprehensive and balanced analysis of the complex interplay between geopolitics and geo-economics in Central Eurasia, and pivotal energy plateau – that of Caspian. We finally have an all-in reader that was otherwise chronically missing in international literature, which will hopefully reverse the trend of underreporting on such a prime world’s spot.   

Hence, this is a must-read book for those wondering about the future of one of the most dynamic and most promising regions of the world and what it could entail for both reginal and external players. 
Andrey Kortunov Director General, Russian International Affairs Council

Although of pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic importance, Caspian energy plateau represents one of the most underreported subjects in the western literature. Interdisciplinary research on the topic is simply missing.  

Therefore, this book of professor Bajrektarevic and his team – unbiased, multidisciplinary, accurate and timely – is a much-needed and long-awaited reader: A must read for scholars and practitioners, be it from Eurasia or beyond.

It is truly a remarkable piece of work!  

Authors were able to tackle a challenging subject with a passion, knowledge and precision, and turn it into a compelling, comprehensive yet concise read which I highly recommend.   

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Kazakhstan Erzhan Kazykhanov, Ambassador Embassy of Kazakhstan, Washington dc, USA 

ARTNeT secretariat is pleased to see how our initial invitation to Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic to present at the ARTNeT Seminar Series in 2015 evolved. The talk was initially published as a working paper for ARTNeT (AWP 149). Now Prof. Bajrektarevic, in collaboration with another two co-authors, offers a comprehensive study on a nexus of legal, security, and environmental issues all emanating from and linked to energy cooperation (or lack thereof) in the subregion. This volume’s value extends beyond the education of readers on the Caspian Basin’s legal status (e.g., is it a sea or a lake?). It is just as relevant for those who want a more in-depth understanding of an interplay of economic, security, and political interest of players in the region and outside. With the global institutions increasingly less capable of dealing with rising geopolitics and geo-economic tensions, more clarity – even if only about some aspects of those problematic issues – should be appreciated. This volume offers such clarity.   

Mia Mikic, Director UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) ARTNeT coordinator

It is my honor to reflect on this work on Caspian. Comprehensive and content rich, this book of professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic and his co-authors brings up comprehensively all the useful information on Caspian, with the geographical and historical background and cultural, economic as well as security aspects related to it.

Authors’ novel and unbiased approach shall certainly help decision makers in their bettered understanding of the region that has centuries-long history of peace and cordial neighbourly relations. Long needed and timely coming, I warmly recommend this reader to those who want to know, but more importantly to all those who want to understand, this pivotal region of the world.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh Former Ambassador of Islamic Republic of Iran to United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva & Vienna

The book by Professor Bajrektarevic and his co-authors embodies a wide-ranging overview of the intertwined interests pursued by the young democracies of the Caspian basin, battling with inherited land and water disputes, and their interplay with regional and global powers. Apparently, supporting political independence of the formers and promoting their integration into the latter’s markets requires adequate analyses, timely outreach policies and consistent engagement. In this sense the publication serves as one of the scarce handbooks to understand diverse interests of stakeholders, dynamically changing security architecture of the region and emerging opportunities of cooperation around the Caspian Sea.

Ambassador GalibIsrafilov Permanent Representative to the UN Vienna and to the OSCE Embassy of Azerbaijan to Austria

Caspian: Status, Challenges, Prospects

An Analysis into the Legal Classification, Security and Environmental Concerns, Geopolitics and Energy Flow Impact of the Caspian Plateau

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Eastern Europe

As Georgians Fight Each Other, Russia Gleefully Looks On

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Earlier today, the leader of Georgia’s major opposition party – United National Movement (UNM) – was detained at his party headquarters by government security forces, the most recent escalation in a drawn-out political crisis. This could well be the beginning of a new troubled period in the country’s internal dynamics, with repercussions for the country’s foreign policy.

The optics favor the opposition. Images of armed and armored police storming UNM’s headquarters was damaging to the ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD). Western diplomats expressed grave concern over the events and their repercussions. Protests have been called, and will likely be covered closely in Western media.

What comes next, however, is not clear.

Much will depend on what long-term vision for the country the opposition can articulate in the aftermath of the most recent events. It was not that long ago that UNM was declining as a political force in Georgian politics. There is a real opportunity here. But the burden is on the opposition to make a play for the loyalty of voters beyond its circle of already-convinced supporters.

Appealing to ordinary Georgian voters is ultimately the key to resolving the crisis. Beyond the intra-party clashes about the legitimacy of the most recent elections, there is a growing chasm between political elites and the challenges faced by people in their daily lives. And tackling these challenges successfully will not be easy.

Both the ruling party and the opposition have been facing declining support from the public at large. Long-term economic problems, which have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, have not been credibly addressed by either side. Instead of solutions, both sides have engaged in political theatrics. For many voters, the current crisis is more about a struggle for political power, rather than about democracy and the economic development of the country. No wonder that most people consider their social and economic human rights to have been violated for decades no matter which party is in power. These attitudes help explain high abstention rates during the most recent election. Despite remarkable successes in the early years after the Rose Revolution, Georgia has lacked a long-term policy for reimagining its fragile economy since its independence and the disastrous conflicts of the 1990s.

None of this, however, should minimize the threats to Georgian struggling democracy. Today’s arrests reinforce a longstanding trend in Georgian politics: the belief that the ruling party always stands above the law. This was the case with Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili, and is now the case with the current government. For less politically engaged citizens, plus ça change: Georgian political elites for the last 30 years have all ended up behaving the same way, they say. That kind of cynicism is especially toxic to the establishment of healthy democratic norms.

The crisis also has a broader, regional dimension. The South Caucasus features two small and extremely fragile democracies – Armenia and Georgia. The former took a major hit last year, with its dependence on Moscow growing following Yerevan’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War. Today, Russia is much better positioned to roll back any reformist agenda Armenians may want to enact. Armenia’s current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been weakened, and easily staged protests are an easy way to keep him in line.

Georgia faces similar challenges. At a time when Washington and Brussels are patching things up after four years of Trump, and the Biden administration vigorously reiterates its support for NATO, Georgia’s woes are a boon for Moscow. Chaos at the top weakens Georgia’s international standing and undermines its hopes for NATO and EU membership. And internal deadlock not only makes Georgia seem like a basket-case but also makes a breakthrough on economic matters ever more unlikely. Without a serious course correction, international attention will inevitably drift away.

At the end of the day, democracy is about a lot more than finding an intra-party consensus or even securing a modus vivendi in a deeply polarized society. It is about moving beyond the push-and-pull of everyday politics and addressing the everyday needs of the people. No party has risen to the occasion yet. Georgia’s NATO and EU aspirations remain a touchstone for Georgian voters, and both parties lay claim to fully representing those aspirations. But only through credibly addressing Georgia’s internal economic problems can these aspirations ever be fully realized. The party that manages to articulate this fact would triumph.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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