Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Book Review: Georgia Diary: A Chronicle of War and Political Chaos in the Post-Soviet Caucasus | Thomas Goltz

This reviewer is not the first to review Goltz’s Georgia Diary: A Chronicle of War and Political Chaos in the Post-Soviet Caucasus. Most notably the Wall Street Journal lauded the book and the hardcover published by M.E Sharpe gathers teasers from a wide variety of noteworthy folks on the back cover.

However, for those new to Goltz, Georgia Diary forms the third part of a trilogy of books about the Post-Soviet Caucasus, the first two covering the bad old times in the 1990s in Chechnya and Azerbaijan. This last addition to the trilogy differs from the other two in that it is written long after the events at the heart of the book took place. In that sense, it will not be quoted in the same way in academic circles as Goltz’s earlier books were. Though some take issue with the sometimes anecdotal style of Goltz’s accounts, his work is widely cited and he often speaks to academic audiences on the topic of Azerbaijan.

Though Georgia Diary, may be quoted by fewer academics, Goltz attempts to be much more academic than he was Azerbaijan Diary. But the academic part of the book is not the book’s strongest and seems to pale in comparison to Tony Anderson’s Bread and Ashes, where the academic background makes Anderson’s trek through the high Georgian Caucasus all the more delightful.

Nevertheless, Goltz’s unforgettable fast-paced writing returns when he recounts time spent in Sukhumi before and during and after the withdrawal of Georgian troops from Abkhazia. This is Goltz at his best and his work serves to highlight for many the multiple angles of the Georgian civil war and the difficulty in writing about it clearly or classifying well from an academic perspective what exactly was going on.

For instance, the fact the supporters of the first Georgian President Gamsakhurdia were based out of Sukhumi created a complexity for those, under the banner of Eduard Shevardanadze, who were allied against Gamsakhurdia and in control of the Georgian military. While Abkhaz aligned forces were attacking Sukhumi, there was still a battle for territory in Western Georgia going on between those allied with Gamsakhurdia and those with Shevardnadze. As Goltz regales, these sides were known as the Position and the Opposition, however, which was the Position and which was Opposition appears to depend on what side you were on, and caused never ending confusion to outsiders trying to figure out what the heck was going on in a land so few in the West had ever heard of.

To someone familiar with Georgia, some of the mistakes slightly grate. The Russian use of the ploshchad instead of the Georgian moedani when Goltz claims to be speaking Georgian, the referral to Mingrelian as a dialect of Georgian rather than a separate language, or the mistranscription of the Georgian name Avtandil as Artvandil highlight Goltz’s self-proclaimed lack of familiarity with Georgia.

Nevertheless, all in all, Goltz adds yet another readable volume, to what is now his trilogy on the Caucasus.

This post is also published in the Georgian Times.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Migration in Georgia: Launching the "Development on the Move" Project

ISET and CRRC today launched the Development on the Move (DOTM) Project. The aim of this project is to map how migration impacts development in multiple dimensions. DOTM is funded by the Global Development Network, and coordinated by the Institute for Public Policy Research in London. 250 proposals from throughout the world competed to participate in this project, and we were extremely happy to be selected as one of the six winning teams.

Various stakeholders from the Georgian Government including National Bank, international organizations (OSCE, ILO, IOM), embassies, NGOs and leading Georgian researchers participated. Danny Sriskandarajah represented IPPR.

After introducing the project to the audience, a very focused debate followed, highlighting various migration impacts. These include remittance impacts on labor and real estate markets, changing gender roles in families, drug abuse in the absence of social control, de-skilling through low-level exploitative employment abroad, as well as various potential positive impacts, such as attitudinal change, language learning, and exposure to specialized education. (More exhaustive minutes will be available on request.)

A second component was a review of the existing policy gaps. There continues to be a mismatch between EU and local expectations. Citizenship, taxation and custom laws may discourage return migration. Embassies do not really serve as points of contact, but often are avoided, especially by undocumented migrants. Coordination of agencies, systematic gathering of quality data, and data sharing were also highlighted as particular issues.

We encourage anyone interested in migration to get in touch with us if they want to find out more about this project. We're planning a specialized mailing list, and migration-specific website for Georgia will be launched in the next few weeks by the Danish Refugee Council. More details about the international projects are available here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ironies of Rural Development Intervention

A story told by a researcher recently returned from Afghanistan, working on a development program. Here he is asking people in a village:
"How often do you clean out your irrigation channel?"
"Every time the NGO pays us."
"Well, when did they last pay you?"
"Two years ago."
"How often did you clean the irrigation channel before the NGO arrived to work in the region?"
"Every year."
Apocryphal as the story may be, it still is a wonderful illustration of how interventions can change the local calculus, substituting for local effort and thereby leading to bizarre, unanticipated distortions. That theme is probably relevant to many rural development programs across the region. If you have any similar stories, let us know.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Counting People Makes them Count | Richard Rose

Richard Rose, a renowned specialists in the field of Social Capital, is currently visiting Georgia to deliver trainings at CRRC. He offered a public lecture setting out the case for conducting surveys, and entitled "Counting People Helps Make People Count". Not that we needed convincing, but we still enjoyed the way the argument was set out.

As Rose argued, surveys give a direct voice to people, show how they are living, what they are thinking, and identifies both what the problems are and who has them. He contrasted this bottom -up approach with a top-down approach to policy, and suggested that it has a special place between journalism, which tells one-off stories and ethnography or anthropology, which tell complex stories that become difficult to generalize. Data, in other words, are the plural of anecdotes. A concrete example he offered was a survey conducted in Latvia, designed to focus on poverty among female pensioners. As survey results showed, this was a relatively minor problem, compared to child poverty -- an insight that can help to direct scarce resources.

However, there also can be a catch, when data is turned into a league table, since only one can ever be on top. All others can see themselves as losers, relatively speaking. Yet this realization does not need to invoke the particularism of Johann Gottfried Herder, who had argued that basically all comparison is disastrous. Instead, making progress is the relevant category. As Rose put it: "if you talk about league tables, the conversation is pessimistic. If you talk about making progress, you can focus on making changes". Little happiness lies in comparing oneself to Sweden, but tracking progress in overcoming destitution charts a concrete path to where one wants to go.

Packaged into the talk were many engaging tidbits: admonishments that typical poverty data is one-dimensional ("relative poverty as a curse of Fabian Socialism"); the observation that throughout the former socialist bloc answers to "do you feel freer than before?" remain quite sticky, in that the positive sea change is not forgotten; the curious observation that 58% of Turkish population appears worried about Christian missionaries; and that Russia after the collapse for a long time lacked the "why we are here" speech, something that in post-1945 Germany was easier to deliver. His curriculum vitae lists many of his relevant publications.

The overall outlook was quite optimistic, in that he saw extensive progress. Professor Rose is currently writing a book about Transition and After, which will reflect many of these themes. Currently he is offering a training course on designing Social Capital questionnaires. He also urged us to publish more results from our Data Initiative, which we will be doing over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tourism: Structure and Cost-sharing

A slightly specialized topic: what's the cost of tourism? Often suggested as a way of developing parts of the South Caucasus, especially Georgia, quickly, it's interesting to take a quick look, since in tourism many factors interact: business, environment, architecture, urban planning, societal habits, local versus national government, local and foreign expectations, and the challenge of reconciling all of those.

Gudauri, Georgia's main ski resort is an interesting example. It currently is being privatized again, after a previous privatization attempt did not succeed when the investor walked away after a few months, for a range of reasons, including local (they found it difficult to get all the land they needed to consolidate their holdings) and legal (apparently they were sued in a foreign court for a debt incurred by the Shevardnadze government, under an obscure clause).

In Gudauri the lifts are bundled together with the main Sport Hotel, as a single entity, a curious late 80s Austrian-Soviet venture. The bundling creates various problems: investments into the lifts may benefit all hotels and guest houses by bringing more visitors, but investment has to be undertaken by a single institution. The other hotels effectively are free riders.

This also raises issues at the end of season: now the lifts are beginning to run at a loss, with daily electricity costs about 600 GEL, and personnel costs of about 400 GEL, plus fuel costs for grading the pistes, starting anywhere at 300 GEL per day, depending on the weather. At a price per pass of 25 GEL, more than 60 skiers are needed in the resort, and as last weekend showed, it's barely more than three dozen at this time of year.

But: at this time of year, lifts start at nine o'clock (as opposed to ten, earlier in the season) and many people prefer to ski early before it gets too slushy, so that people now are even more likely to stay over, rather than drive up from Tbilisi. A few guest houses are actually full, and thriving. Of course, that money would dry up once the season is over, so the skiing is primarily kept to feed the guesthouses. Yet in the current structure, the lift operator still incurs a loss.

Generally, quality of service has seen a huge improvement in the last year, and the main variable is competent new management. But a lot of things still need to fall into place, and in the upcoming privatization one idea is to separate the lifts out, which may even be an option since this year for the first time the llifts have been making a profit.

In a way, the resort mirrors many of the intervowen challenges that need to be met (and who to meet them: national government? Local?), and in which growth typically throws up the next problem, such as the supply of drinking water to all the new buildings.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Armenia and Azerbaijan’s Performance | Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Meta-Index

A previous blog entry on Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Meta-Index, as you may recall, presented Georgia’s performance. For those who do not know, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) uses data from the research of various organizations such as the IFC, the World Bank Institute, UNESCO, Freedom House and others. Millennium Challenge Corporation recently released an assessment through its annual scorecard, which has three main policy categories: Ruling Justly, Investing in People, and Economic Freedom.

Unlike Georgia, were most of the trends are positive, trends in Armenia and Azerbaijan are not very consistent. Armenia has problems, especially in the Ruling Justly categories: the Political Rights, Civil Liberties and the Voice and Accountability are all in decline. The only two Armenian trends, which are currently improving, are the Primary Education Expenditures (UNESCO/National Sources) from the Investing in People category and the Regulatory Quality (World Bank Institute) from the Economic Freedom section.


As for Azerbaijan, the news, according to the scorecard, unfortunately is pretty bleak. Most indicators are below the median, and some trends are declining further: among them, the Voice and Accountability trend, which was already quite low; the Inflation trend has increased, although, it looks as if that trend had been stopped in 2006. The Business Start-Up (IFC) and the Fiscal Policy (National Sources) are the only ones with a consistent increase each year.


For more info, click here. As always your comments welcome.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Focus Groups | some basic local lessons

We have recently conducted 20 focus groups across Georgia. (More on the content later.)

Here are some basic tips and tricks we found useful.

  • Rewards: 15 GEL phone cards; that seems just about right: not overpaying, but still attractive.
  • Recruitment: on the street, at sampling points a couple of days in advance; we get definitive agreement from 20 people, write down their phone number and address, and then send out a taxi to pick up the respondent before the event; we did NOT screen for articulacy and ended up with a few laconic focus group members, but never more than one or two per group. In future, we may ask a quick AND complex question (a typical screen is something like"if you could only pick one skill, which skill would you like to have, playing an instrument or a team sport? And tell us why?"), to select even better.
  • Timing: amazingly, we started several of the focus groups EARLY since everyone was there already; so we turned the reserve away, with the 15 GEL phone card as a reward for showing up. Typically, groups ran 2 hours, and that worked fine.
  • Numbers: we had 10 people per group, which was OK considering that we had some less outspoken participants; otherwise, it would have been just a bit too much; small things matter: narrow tables ended up isolating participants at the end.
  • Discussion Guide: on that, we spent a lot of time. We think we got that right.
  • Mirrors: nice to have, of course, but we opted for a camera, with a live feed (see photo) into the next room; we briefly thought about purchasing the cameras, but then decided the wiser course was to hire a professional local journalism organisation.
  • Minority areas: for Kvemo Kartli and Samtske-Javakheti, we brought in facilitators from Azerbaijan and Armenia. Many people told us that you couldn't use Baku Azerbaijani language in Marneuli, but it turns out that our Baku-based facilitator got along very well (although some people seemed shy of her 'high' language, and responded in Russian); maybe this would change in rural areas, but in Marneuli city, Azerbaijani language is not an issue.
  • We always had a facilitator and a note-taker, even if the latter is a bit of a luxury since we had full transcripts, it serves a good support function.
We hope others doing research will find some of this helpful. Any suggestions for good screening questions?