Superhighways: Information and Otherwise
This is one of the more interesting stories in Azerbaijan I’ve been following (by “following”, I mean I’ve read a few news stories and looked up the UN Resolution about it):
The project of constructing the East-West information superhighway and the establishment of the RIZ in the country will be one of the main themes of the Azerbaijani Communications and IT Minister Ali Abbasov’s report. Abbasov will introduce the participants with detailed information about projects and policies, aimed at developing ICT and the industry of science and technology.
The resolution, put forward by Azerbaijan to create super informational East-West, was adopted by the UN within the 66th plenary meeting. The organization expressed support for the project, which aims to eliminate the “informational gap”, reduce poverty, increase economic growth and play the role of locomotive for the development of the region. UN urged all regional countries to take the necessary measures for its implementation.
The resolution adopted by the UN is intended to join a total of 20 countries and play an important role in the development of the region. Realization of the project will eliminate the gap between the countries within the Western European and Pacific basins.
That was from six months ago, and you can click here for a light update on things from yesterday. This is my favorite part:
A resolution submitted by Azerbaijan to create an information superhighway was adopted by the U.N. during its sixty-sixth plenary meeting. The organization expressed support for the project, which aims to reduce poverty and increase economic growth. The project will serve as an engine for regional development.
Fascinating, right? An information superhighway, which reduces poverty, too.
About this project, itself, I don’t have a ton to say (read the actual UN resolution here (pdf)). I think it’s certainly a great thing for Azerbaijan to be pursuing. They have an excellent location for being a coordinator for this project, as they are at the confluence of many different countries. And it’s also a great way to spur technological development in the country here. I’m not yet convinced that they’ve been reducing poverty by means of this information superhighway, but the overall end-result will be more and more efficient information, which is an intrinsically good thing. It’s especially good in countries like Azerbaijan, where good information is very difficult to come by, and the good information comes in such small doses as to be ineffectual for the majority of people. My hope for the project is that it makes information more accessible and more plentiful in Azerbaijan, for everyone.
But I also think that this project speaks to a larger role in this area of the world that Azerbaijan could play if it was serious about economic development. As it stands now, Azerbaijan’s economy is hardly diverse, with the World Bank’s most recent numbers saying that the oil and gas sector accounts for about 54% of GDP, though Wikipedia says, without citation, that “in 2007, mining and hydrocarbon industries accounted for well over 95 percent of the Azerbaijani economy.” Yikes. Agriculture is a pittance compared to what it could be, and services take up the rest.
What I think would be fascinating, instead, would be to imagine Azerbaijan in its role as the home of this information superhighway, and then to re-imagine Azerbaijan again as a trade hub, a superhighway for goods, as well as information (there’s no reason not to do both at the same time). The way I see it, Azerbaijan can function well as the coordinator for the above information project because of its central location and its geographic holding as a potential crossroads coming from countries both from the east and the west, especially amongst the Caspian littoral states, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran (plus Azerbaijan). While certainly no Singapore or Hong Kong, Azerbaijan could serve as a great trade hub for the region. Much as Azerbaijan serves as the door to Afghanistan for the US military, it could even better serve the region as a door to the east or west for all sorts of trade. With my work here in the bank, I already know that there is quite a bit of transport going on across Azerbaijan from Iran to Russia (and the other way). Yet, export numbers for Azerbaijan are disappointingly small. With Baku as a strategic trade port, Azerbaijan could easily turn that into an advantage, taking goods from the Caspian Sea states and shipping them west, or shipping goods from Europe to Central Asia out of Baku’s port. Plus, with such a big increase in importing and exporting, think of all the tourism Azerbaijan could attract.
Surely, there are a number of obstacles to this right now. The Baku port probably isn’t big or efficient enough. The roads across Azerbaijan are in no condition for a decent trucking operation, and won’t be any time soon. The corruption atmosphere here is probably a little too strong yet for countries and companies to invest in a big shipping operation through Azerbaijan. And, among others, the big piece that would make all of this work at its most optimal, an economic relationship with Armenia, is not and won’t be accessible for quite a while. One can dream, though.