Archive for the ‘Education’ Category
Maybe you’ve read this article from CNBC Magazine already. It’s a fairly general article, called “Power Shift”, giving an overview of political and economic movements over the past decade and, more specifically, over the past year in Azerbaijan. There aren’t a whole lot of new or surprising facets of the article, but there are some interesting notes, such as this one:
Last year, the UK invested almost £1bn in the country or 51.9% of total foreign investment in Azerbaijan; BP, the oil giant, accounted for the vast majority of this. The next biggest investor was the US (9%), with Turkey contributing 3.6%.
That’s an impressive drop-off. Obviously, investments from oil companies are going to be the lion’s share of investments in a petrostate, but I can imagine that as Azerbaijan’s oil and gas reserves rise in importance, countries like China and India will want to muscle their way into the discussion, using foreign investment to build the relationship. Over the past year, China has started a few initiatives in Azerbaijan, including a new Confucious Institute in Baku. For what it’s worth, a lovely pedestrian boulevard was made here in Lənkəran back about 2005 or 2006, though I hear that the Chinese who built it received quite a bit of racist grief while they were here. And I’ve said before (as well as Eli) that Mandarin Chinese might be a more advantageous language for Azerbaijani students to learn.
Another interesting set of tidbits was is this one:
A huge international sea port is also being built on the Caspian to facilitate oil shipments from Kazakhstan. An international airport at Gabala is planned, while a terminal is being added to Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku. Tourism is expanding, thanks to the construction of several new hotels and resorts in Baku and along the coast.
Seaport? Check. That makes sense to me. That might be very helpful in turning Azerbaijan’s geography into a more advantageous asset, as I expressed here. An international airport in Gabala (Qəbələ)? This is a little confusing. I don’t mean to say that international airports are a bad thing, but let’s recall Azerbaijan’s size and it’s needs. Baku’s international airport is already more than satisfying the country’s needs and is scheduled for an expansion. No one will be complaining about the crazy crowds at Heydar Aliyev Airport except maybe during Eurovision. And there are already a bunch of airports all over Azerbaijan, including Zaqatala, Gəncə, and our very own in Lənkəran. I think there are more, too. Adding another sounds a little silly, unless there is something I’m missing here.
Also, that Azerbaijani tourism thing is creeping in again, with the fuzzy numbers to back it up. The article goes on to list the hotel projects in Baku that are aimed at tourism, supposedly. From my vantage point, this is definitely a situation where hoteliers are banking on supply-side forces to keep them afloat. I would be surprised if demand is even a blip on the screen. Further in the article, references are made to a magical million-tourist number. There is no way there are a million tourists even coming to Azerbaijan. We’ve already looked at this. I’m not sure how 17,000 turns into 1,000,000. And let’s not discuss the visa issue, either. Our esteemed writer, Pamela Ann Smith, probably needs to do a little more fact-checking on that score.
One of the things I do like about the article, though, is this note on education:
Noting that many Azeri students are currently studying in the UK, Alp adds that British universities are now “looking to form joint venture partnerships” with Azeri institutions to provide “world-class engineers, scientists and linguists.”
If they are sincere about that, it would be a major boost to Azerbaijan. Any way to boost the educations system here would be fantastic. As it stands today, the leading organizations and companies know that Azerbaijanis are not trained well enough here in their own country to be able to compete on an international level. From Doctorate education on down, no education level is even satisfactory for Azerbaijanis. If, however, partnerships like this mentioned above can flower, Azerbaijan could actually have the human capital to provide for itself. Instead, the major construction projects all go to foreign firms with foreign workers and top management in many companies has to be foreign to be run effectively. This goes for nearly every sector, from banking to tourism to agriculture to manufacturing and construction.
The article does highlight some possible future bright spots, which is encouraging as agriculture and other non-oil sectors grow. Being able to strengthen sectors outside of oil and gas is going to be key to actually developing a more equitable and democratic Azerbaijan. Until then, however, we’ll have to watch as the monopolies and the wealthy “super-elite” have their way with Azerbaijan’s resource wealth.
Today was that only-once-a-year event in Lənkəran, the FLEX test for students in Azerbaijan who want to go to high school in America for a year (learn more about the program by clicking here). Over 100 students from Lənkəran and the surrounding southern regions crowded into School #4 in the city to take Round One of the test, the qualifier for tomorrow’s Round Two, also at School #4. Over to the left, there are two lovable PCVs
wasting hard-earned taxpayer dollars taking their time to streamline the registration process.
In general, this was a pretty good turnout with 100 students showing up and that matches about what they did last year. Right now, the only successful applicant from Lənkəran in 2010 is way out in the northwest of the USA, in a small town outside of Seattle, Washington. If we’re good, maybe we can bump up the numbers of Lənkəranlı Azerbaijanis at high schools in the US this year.
That standard turnout, however, didn’t come so easily. As usual, messages got dropped and a lot of schools didn’t get the message that the FLEX tests were happening today. Communication fail. Also, we PCVs had an interesting situation arise when we were told that PCVs are not supposed to be involved in education or the schools in Lənkəran. It’s pretty standard for Volunteers to be helping out, as many of these students are people we work with regularly and we want to see them succeed, encourage them to take the tests and give it their best shot. Plus, it’s just nice to have a few extra sets of capable hands around to help with organizing the students and doing registration. For us, though, it looks like someone at the local education department’s office isn’t too thrilled about us hanging around schools.
Today’s post is a smattering of links that are newsworthy or worth reading.
First, worth reading is a post from Steve describing a great-looking adventure up in the Qusar-Quba region of Azerbaijan, in the north nearer the border with Russia. Steve writes about meeting an ex-government official, a recently-returned soldier, and visiting a pir (an excellent explanation of pirs here).
Second, it looks like the Azerbaijan’s Education Minister been saying some interesting things lately: In keeping with the recent policy implementation to retire educators at age 65, creating a wave of involuntary retirements and new job openings across the country, the minister has offered to make good on his own retirement since he, too, is 65 years old. On top of that interesting offer, the minister is also seemingly interested in raising teacher salaries. I doubt that he’ll be willing to implement the 2000 AZN/month figure he seemed to grab from thin air:
“Azerbaijan has a lot of professional teachers today, but they have very low wage – AZN 200. Therefore they retire and prefer tutorship at home”, Minister of Education of Azerbaijan Misir Mardanov said during the Baku education workers conference, APA reports. Mardanov underlined the selfless labor of the Azerbaijani teachers and said if they received AZN 2000, children wouldn’t need in tutors.
Last, Eurovision 2012 has seen two major developments in the last few days: Development one is that it appears that the Baku Crystal Hall has begun construction on the Baku bay. That 25,000-seat enclosed stadium will have to be completed in less than eight months, as the finals for Eurovision are scheduled for mid-May. Hope the rush on that order doesn’t compromise things like safety standards. Development two is that the government did respond to the Eurovision committee’s request that Azerbaijan’s visa regime be simplified. Unfortunately, with a flat “no”:
Samad Seyidov, the head of Azerbaijan’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), said on September 3 that “simplifying the visa regime ahead of [the] Eurovision [contest in 2012] is not under discussion.”
It looks like the Azeri government has left some wiggle room for compromise, but as of now, it looks like they are fairly firm on continuing to implement their somewhat-cumbersome visa process. Sorry, Eurovision fans and prospective tourists.
This past weekend, we celebrated another successful go of the Writing Olympics. The award ceremony was packed with guests, including representatives from the US Embassy, Peace Corps, and a host of media organizations, not to mention our budding young writers and their families. At the US-Azerbaijan Education Center in Baku, we gathered to present awards, read selected essays, and congratulate Azerbaijan on a job well done competing both within the country and internationally.
The Writing Olympics is an important piece of what we do here as Volunteers because it gives our Azerbaijani friends and students an opportunity to compete, to practice their English abilities, and to think creatively (a skill not though very highly of around here). Having students ponder questions like “Why is the grass green?” or “If you could fill the night sky with something other than stars and planets, what would it be and why?” is an exercise that doesn’t happen often enough. It would be great if we could do this essay competition in Azeri, but that would make the international part of it much more difficult.
I wrote about the Writing Olympics first last year, when it was the Trans-Caucasus Writing Olympics competition. We reached just under 300 participants and netted some real gems of quotes from the writers. Of the 11 international first-prize awards, Azerbaijan took 5 of them, more than any other country involved (Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova).
This year, Azerbaijan’s students were competing with countries across the globe, including Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and a bunch more (total of 9). Almost 500 students competed, and Azerbaijan tied Ukraine for the most international prizes taken. Overall, it’s a feel-good event that spreads throughout the world through Peace Corps. Encouraging creativity, providing a space to improve English skills, and building connections with people from nine different Peace Corps countries (and within their own countries, too!) is tough to beat.
On a side note, we also got some serious press coverage. In addition to my being interviewed about Writing Olympics and Peace Corps on the national TV channels, we also got picked up on Today.Az and Trend:
US-Azerbaijan Education Center on Saturday held a ceremony to award winners of the International English Olympiad. At the event, certificates and prizes were presented to eight representatives of Azerbaijani youth who have become winners of the contest. The contest was attended by 483 people from all regions of Azerbaijan – both pupils and students. For the first time, the International English Olympiad was held in Georgia in 2004. This year, the contest was by attracted 4,867 people from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Albania, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Mongolia, Ukraine and Armenia. It was noted at the event that most prizes were gained by the Azerbaijani and Ukrainian pupils and students.
Feminism is not a word I often use with my close Azerbaijanis. Not that I don’t want to talk about topics or problems in the feminine realm, but it just doesn’t come up that much. Yet, in the moments that the words “feminist” or “feminism” have arisen, my female Azeri friends have been quick to distance themselves from the concepts. I’ve been trying to think of why this could be-what makes being a “feminist” so undesirable? I’m fairly certain that in America, you can’t not be a feminist without being considered fringe right-wing (think Phyllis Schlafly).
The only explanation I can come up with is that in traveling the miles and miles to Azerbaijan, the concepts of feminism have lost the history that started with your Susan B. Anthonys and Frances Perkinses, followed by the Eleanor Roosevelts and Betty Friedans. A set of connotations that set forth examples of women pioneering in fields previously off-limits to them, women making their own choices about their roles in society both personally and publicly, or women breaking stereotypes that come with gender seem to have been shed as the word feminist arrived in Azerbaijan. Instead, I’m theorizing that the words have picked up connotations that are limited to the role feminism has played in changing perceptions of sexuality in the West.
I think if all feminism had to offer was the Feminist Sex Wars, then saying that feminism ain’t your thing isn’t too far-fetched. Or if feminism offered only a prescription for strong women who have to fill all-pioneering roles as liberated working women with absolute control over their personal, family, and public lives, then rejecting that doesn’t sound too harsh, either. Yet, the way I see feminism manifesting itself as a positive influence here in Azerbaijan is as a concept that embraces women being able to make their own choices, creating their own opportunities, about their lives. I talked about this idea previously in a post about social expectations, defining success for women, and the roles we play in an evolving culture. This above discussion is just a smaller part of that post, where we look at a particular feature of the social fabric and the words we use to define ourselves, and how those words set up our social expectations.
So, I’m not totally sure what these words ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ mean to young Azerbaijanis today, but it strikes me that the concepts behind these words, though valuable for today’s Azerbaijan, don’t have quite the same meaning we want to ascribe to them from our US perspective.
Occasionally, blips flit across the news ticker about Azerbaijan and its desire to develop into an information and communications technology hub. A little ways back, I wrote about Azerbaijan’s proposed East West Informational Superhighway, a regional project to increase access to information via the Internet, among other media. It looks like a fairly unique project to which, geographically, Azerbaijan is well-suited. However, we can’t forget that Azerbaijan has some very real obstacles when it comes to technical savvy. Today’s story from Trend illustrates this well:
Azerbaijan ranked the fifth amongst the countries where a broad penetration of the Trojan program of Win32/Hodprot was recorded since the beginning of the year, the ESET Company reported.
Trojan Win 32/Hodprot has been designed for download to computer for various malicious software aimed at remote banking services.
The first three countries, who have infected with Trojan Win 32/Hodprot, include Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, where there is also the activity of other families of banker Trojans.
Yikes. That’s not a ranking anyone seeks out. Yet, it’s not really a surprise. Going to internet clubs in Azerbaijan can be a shady prospect, as picking up viruses from the common-use computers on your flash drive is highly likely. It’s not rare that a number of computers, even at well-administrated computer centers, will be rendered useless by the malicious software invading the systems. All of these issues can be attributed to user errors. Azerbaijanis, in my experience, are not well-educated on the various dangers from downloading songs, movies, and others. And they aren’t good at sniffing out various internet scams.
In addition to that, we also know that Azerbaijan is a ‘leader’ in software piracy. I wrote about that last year as the Economist released research showing both Armenia and Azerbaijan among the worst trespassers of intellectual property laws. This is true, again, even at the best computer clubs in Azerbaijan. The local IREX information center started up last fall with all brand new computers. It took a very short time to figure out that all of the versions of Windows were counterfeit copies. And that’s at a computer center administrated jointly by USAID and an international development agency. We should have higher expectations for those entities, right?
In spite of these obstacles, Azerbaijan is still aspiring to becoming a informational and communications technology leader. Certainly, we can be impressed that I can have high-speed internet at my home in a less-developed region of the country. The president has staked out a position that seeks ICT development as a serious part of Azerbaijan’s future economy. The Information Technology Minister claims to be targeting students for better IT education.
Identifying the IT sector as a viable economic driver and focusing on IT education is an important start. Yet, if Azerbaijan is really seeking to become a leader in this sphere, they are going to need to work on basic internet safety knowledge for its population. Picking up viruses by going to internet clubs is not good for a computer’s health and usefulness. At this point, the education system is not equipped to give students an adequate education on computer basics, so most of the learning is either through computer courses by people who aren’t well-trained or through using the pirated, virus-laden software. Azerbaijan will also have to focus on actually enforcing anti-piracy laws. It’s incredibly difficult to take seriously an IT effort when everyone is using pirated and corrupted software. If I’m going to be trusting Azerbaijan with an information superhighway, I’d like to know that the technology they are using isn’t copped off and corrupted. And we certainly don’t want to be putting information on systems that are chock-full of Trojan viruses that will steal our money.
Azerbaijan is full of unexpected features for the uninitiated Westerner. Yet, English-language essay writing was not on my list.
I am a Five-Paragraph Essay devotee. If there was a Facebook page devoted to the Five-Paragraph Essay, I would Like it. If there was a +1 button on Google Plus for the Five-Paragraph Essay, I would +1 it. Before coming to Azerbaijan, I was into this essay format. After living in Azerbaijan for nearly two years and reading through countless essays in English by non-native speakers who were not steeped in the practice, I can say definitively that such a structure is far superior to any other format. This clarity arose because of the noted lack of structure in essays here and the subsequent mess of writing that results from a lack of structure.
America’s education system taught me well the five-paragraph essay format. However, Azerbaijan, influenced by Russia, does not stress such a layout for essays. Instead of the repetitive organization of the writing, I’m told that most Azeri and Russian writings lack this type of structure. The best essays are the ones that are the longest, including the most content (related to the subject at hand or not). This is much like classroom instruction here, where the student called on in class is expected to pontificate for as long as possible, and the student who talks the longest (substance and organization notwithstanding) is the one who gets the highest marks in class. Or, at least that was the Soviet system, if it’s not still prevailing today.
If that’s how writings are expected in Azeri and Russian, that’s fine (for them, anyways). In English, though, we expect a certain degree of organization in an essay. And essays without good structure, even if they have great information, don’t get very far. It is for this purpose that Mason and I have started a weekly essay-writing class, emphasizing the five-paragraph essay. Starting with the basics has been an interesting process to observe. I can understand how it would be difficult for some because the structure is repetitive. If you aren’t accustomed to that, are told that that’s a waste of space to repeat yourself, then cramming essays into the structure will be a bit confounding.
The most interesting part of the class so far, though, is that when someone actually follows the structure of the essay, even on their first try, it transforms the written word into a more serious form of argument. Suddenly, logic is underpinning the whole piece and everything else falls into place. One student, Ramil, made his first gander at the essay and we had no problem breaking it down to its component parts and understanding his argument (we had assigned a tough topic: Why is Peace Corps presence not good for Azerbaijan? After doing outlines for the positive aspects of having PC here, we thought it’d be good to stretch their minds a bit.) The students are also noting how simple it seems. Instead of long, winding writing, we’re emphasizing simple and structured. It’s a big change and, hopefully for those who have to read essays from these folks in the future, a big improvement.
As I’ve been thinking about this idea, I at first wanted to make a reasoned generalization about Azerbaijanis. And then I thought about it more and I wanted to make that reasoned generalization about Americans, specifically Peace Corps Volunteers. The reality is that it applies to almost everyone: we are all self-appointed experts.
This is not a groundbreaking idea. Nobody is stunned by that brief revelation. Yet, I don’t think most people realize how often we put ourselves in that “expert” position without knowing it (and yes, I’m aware that my blogging at all is me putting forth my ideas in at least a pseudo-expert fashion, which is sort of meta). I also don’t think that we as Peace Corps Volunteers take a moment to step back and realize what we are doing in our roles with organizations in our host countries. I can only imagine how widespread this affliction is in wider world of ‘Development’.
The clarifying example for this tendency is CBT Azerbaijan, Mason’s localized tourism experiment here. I’ll describe it briefly, but you should read more about it here. Mason, while up in mountainous Lerik, next to Lənkəran, had the luxury of lots of spare time to roam the mountains and the small villages hidden within. With his wandering, he started to build a network of contacts in various villages. Eventually, he came upon the idea of Community-Based Tourism as a legitimate business venture for the Azerbaijan tourism industry. With families located in various villages, he could hook them up with tourists who wanted a homestay experience with a local Azerbaijani family (oh, we Western romantics). The finances sort themselves out: local managers get a cut, the families get a cut, the money that comes in stays in these communities. It’s an eloquently simple design.
This is where our self-appointed experts come in. As Mason talks more and more about this project (which has really taken off, by the way), the most common reaction when talking to either Azeris or PCVs or anyone, for that matter, is that Mason gets an earful of how to change things in CBT Azerbaijan. It’s a fascinating moment: “Hey, that’s a great idea! This is how you should change it!” I cannot claim to be innocent of this reaction. Inevitably, the proffered ideas are well-meaning but either have already been thought of or don’t really fit in with the goals and model of CBT Azerbaijan. You can see how this might become a little irksome.
That is mildly interesting. More interesting, however, is that this is almost exactly what we as Peace Corps Volunteers know is the wrong approach to making any sort of constructive changes with our local colleagues and organizations. I remember during Pre-Service Training talking about how to ask appreciative questions and how not to approach improving the organizations we work with. It doesn’t really work as we want, where we would just offer suggestions and have them quickly taken up. Instead, we need to ask questions and build relationships so that these nuggets of advice are not seen as attacks but as little packages of knowledge and experience and trust.
It works for both our Azeri colleagues and our American friends. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we probably too often get in this mode of thinking we are experts (and we may well be!) without taking a moment to ask a few questions and get to know a project before throwing out our advice haphazardly, inevitably leading to frustration. I can walk into AccessBank in Lənkəran and spit out a bunch of advice, but it will likely come out flat if I haven’t already shown an interest in whatever issue I’m pontificating about. Certainly, it’s a well-meaning reaction. Yet, we still have to remember to take that step back from our experience and realize how we are coming off to the recipients of our likely-unsolicited advice. I think it’s pretty clear that this goes for anyone, but since we’re talking about Peace Corps Volunteers whose training contains this lesson, expectations can probably be set a little higher for us in this regard.
One of the difficulties of being a Peace Corps Volunteer with a Western-style bank such as AccessBank is that you sometimes forget that the organization you are working with is made up of people who are not necessarily familiar with Western-style business and management practices. That may sound harsh, but it’s true and it sometimes hits you with surprising clarity. I am fully aware that there are problems with managers in every country and from people of any background, yet I think this story goes a long way towards understanding some of the glaring shortcomings I see in almost every organization I’ve come across in Azerbaijan when it comes to the management hierarchy.
This story happened a few weeks ago, so I’ve had some time to process it and tell it to a few other folks. At the bank, I had gone in and the branch manager asked me to come chat with him a for a few minutes. He started by asking me a leading question: “Which department of our branch seems to be the weakest?” Now, there aren’t a whole lot of choices here, but if you know my branch manager at all, you know that he’s looking for a specific answer. I could have tried to derail this by giving an answer he wasn’t looking for, but I also wanted to see where it was going: “Customer Service”.
After that was established, we started talking about what we could do to start making some improvements. This is almost exactly what you want to hear as a PCV, my observational skills and previous experience in business, as well as my being an outsider, coming together to help give feedback and generate ideas on how we can improve certain parts of the business. We talked for a few minutes about how to go about talking with the Customer Service Department employees. We decided to have an after-work meeting of the employees that I would lead. Rahman wanted me to focus on how they aren’t doing their jobs well. I, instead, wanted to expand on that a bit. I laid out a basic meeting with three goals: to discuss the department’s strengths, to identify the department’s weaknesses, and to brainstorm some ideas we could implement to remedy these weaknesses.
The meeting started out great. I just facilitated their discussion. I had come up with my own list of their strengths and weaknesses. They hit on almost all of the strengths I had written down. And, with a little coaxing, they identified well their weaknesses (though, at first they decided they had no weaknesses. I then changed the question to “Imagine you are a client; now what would a client say are the weaknesses?” That worked well.) We then moved on to some ideas to make improvements. This is just where I think the disconnect between management and employees comes in. The employees came up with some good ideas, three feasible, effective ideas: putting up signs in the branch to identify the service areas; putting someone at the door as a greeter to help facilitate getting clients to the right place; and rearranging where employees sit to make the processes more efficient. Great, right?
Well, the branch manager was sitting there while this was going on and he said nothing. After a few minutes of discussion, the group moved on to other topics. I tried to bring them back to what we could do to implement their ideas. They told me that they had already figured that they couldn’t actually implement the ideas and started discussing other things. What?! I asked about the specific ideas, and they pulled up and shot down each one. The branch manager continued to say little to nothing at all. The meeting ended with the employees deciding to do nothing. That was a stunning result for me.
What happened? In my opinion, this is where management failed miserably. At any point, the branch manager could have stepped in and said, “Yes, we can try that.” The employees didn’t really even ask him if he would help out. If I had been the manager in that situation, I feel like it would be my job to step up and say, “Okay, you’ve given some ideas, so now I’ll do my job and see if they are feasible.” A manager’s job should be to put his or her employees in the best position possible to succeed, right? Not so, here. After hearing ideas about how to make the customer service employees’ jobs easier, the branch manager did nothing to support them.
This is still a bit stunning to me. Let me clarify: this is not surprising. This is not surprising because I’ve seen enough of Azerbaijani organizations to know that the attitude I would like to see in managers is non-existent. Ideas not put forward by the manager don’t get support. It would almost be like losing face to accept and implement an idea someone else came up with, as though it was embarrassing not to have come up with the idea themselves. The manager in this situation has full power to make any of the three ideas above happen, nearly overnight. Yet, he did not exercise that at all. To be fair, a bit of blame also goes to the employees who are too timid to demand attention from their branch manager, but I still think the majority of the responsibility falls on the manager for allowing a demoralizing office culture like this to persist. After the meeting, all of the employees felt it was a waste of time because their were no tangible results. Instead, they just got another view of how the branch manager will not support them in their jobs.
I’m not so naive as to think we don’t have management issues in America. We all probably have great examples of where management has failed us in our jobs. Yet, the pervasiveness in Azerbaijan of the attitudes described above is almost crippling. It means that the manager must be a master at directing all of the operations, since he won’t rely on others or delegate any responsibilities. It inhibits initiative by employees. I see this as coming from the Azerbaijani culture, itself, where a patriarchal need to control everything within your sphere overrides a lot of the constructive approaches that could be adopted. I know that that’s a harsh evaluation, but in a business setting, that’s the sort of thing that will severely weaken your ability to adapt and improve. Obviously, I can’t fix this problem by myself or in the space of two years. But it also puts me in this odd position of feeling like I have to be an advocate for the employees to the manager. Not exactly a position I relish as a Peace Corps Volunteer.