Monday, October 26, 2009

Health issues in the South Caucasus

What are some of the most urgent health issues in the South Caucasus? And can any differences be seen between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia? These questions and many more can begin to be answered by data from the CRRC Data Initiative (DI).

As the above charts show, people’s perceptions of the most urgent health issue differ between the countries in the region. In Armenia, heart diseases are stated as the most urgent health issue followed by the quality of medical care and cancer. In Azerbaijan, the quality of medical care is stated as the most urgent, followed by heart diseases and diabetes. In Georgia, the number one most urgent health issue is the availability of affordable medicines, followed by the quality of the medical care, and, in third place, cancer. The quality of medical care, therefore, is in the top three issues in each of the three countries, and cancer is one of the most urgent issues in Armenia and Georgia.

The most striking difference between the countries is that Georgians consider the availability of affordable medicines to be the most urgent health problem (23.5 percent), but only 5.0 percent of the respondents in Azerbaijan agree with this being the most pressing health issue. The next interesting difference can be found in people’s perceptions of heart diseases. The respondents in Armenia and Azerbaijan believe this is one of the most urgent problem (19.1 percent and 16.2 percent, respectively), but only 7.5 percent of the respondents in Georgia agree with this. Moreover, a difference can be seen in people’s perceptions of diabetes and tuberculosis. Respondents in Armenia and Georgia do not state tuberculosis as one of the most pressing health issues (2.7 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively), but 9.6 percent of the respondents in Azerbaijan believe it to be of urgent concern. Finally, only 1.7 percent of the respondents in Georgia say diabetes is the most pressing health issue, while the same level of respondents in Armenia and Azerbaijan is 6.6 percent and 11.7 percent, respectively.

This is merely a data snapshot, and of course CRRC’s Data Initiative is not an instrument specifically designed to capture data on public health. Nevertheless, it yields valuable insights and even more information on health-related topics in the South Caucasus can be found by accessing the datasets on CRRC’s webpage. You can for example find out differences in perception of health issues between men and women, how satisfied people are with the medical healthcare, and information about smoking habits – as well as analyze in more detail the characteristics of different groups of respondents according to age, economic status and place of residence.

Go to to check out the data for yourself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Survey Documentation and Analysis with South Caucasus data

Earlier this month, CRRC launched Survey Documentation and Analysis (SDA), a web-based interface for statistical analysis. SDA was designed by the Association for Computer Assisted Survey at the University of California, Berkeley. Through SDA you can for example calculate frequencies, make cross tabulations, comparison of means and comparison of correlations. CRRC has now loaded its data, based on interviews carried out with more than 6 000 respondents in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, into the SDA platform. As a result, it is now possible for anyone to find out information on everything from language knowledge to perceptions of the Russian-Georgian war.

In comparison to several other statistical software programs, SDA does not require any prior knowledge of statistics. Extracting data is an easy and fast process, as the program provides the user with explanations for the different functions. In addition, there is no need to download any software. You simply visit and start exploring CRRC’s data. Having reliable, up-to-date and easily accessible data on an extensive number of topics is now also possible for those of us that have earlier refrained from using statistical data due to its sometimes rather complex nature.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Plastic Bottles across Caucasus Landscapes | Recycling?

One of the items I have been wondering about for a long time is how some of the recycling is working. You do hear the cries ("Butelki! Butelki!") of people that collect bottles, and we do see haggard men with outsized bags rifling through garbage containers, looking for PET bottles.

At the same time, these PET plastic bottles lie all around the countryside. Does anyone have any clue how much a recycler receives for a bottle? Are the prices staggered, depending on whether the bottle is intact and with a cap? And who is buying, ultimately? Is this an international market? Why are there no known collection points across the city, if anyone is interested in getting these bottles back?

The reason why this matters is because potentially a small nudge in terms of pricing would make it much more attractive to collect bottles, and take them out of the landscape, out of the rivers and landfill garbage dumps.

Any leads, anyone?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Google Squared – a useful research tool?

On 9 October, Google introduced a number of improvements to its search tool “Squared”. Squared was first presented in May 2009 with the idea that instead of going through a big amount of WebPages, the new search tool would provide for a collection of facts presented in tables of items and attributes, which is what Google refers to as “squares”. Google says that Squared is a helpful tool when you are searching for more complex information that the normal Google search tool cannot manage and you need to visit several WebPages in order to collect all the material needed. The result is similar to a spreadsheet, and you are able to see the websites that serve as sources for the information in the squares.

However, when Squared was launched the initial reactions were mostly negative. The main critique was that the results were rather irrational and illogical. Several improvements have thus been made now. More squares with information can be included, and according to Google, the quality of information has improved and is ranked based on relevance and whether high quality facts are available. Data can now also be exported to Google Spreadsheet or a CSV file. Additionally, Squared is re-designed to learn from edits and corrections of its users.

So how well are these improvements working out? And can Google Squared be useful for Caucasus-related research? Unfortunately, Squared is still a limited search tool in several aspects. The basic idea of Squared is sound and could probably come in handy for students of intermediary stages of research, or, to take an example that Google uses, to find out different information about US presidents. As an advanced research tool, however, it is still not entirely adequate. For example, when searching for Scandinavian countries you are provided with some basic information ranging from language, way of governance, GDP per capita and the number of Internet users. Indeed, this provides for an overview and comparison. A similar search for the Caucasian countries does not provide for an as useful overview, though. The information is scarce and there are not a variety of sources either, as the absolute majority of information squares derives from Wikipedia. Moreover, for many of the attributes there are no values found, such as for unemployment rates and information about national industries. The recent improvements to Squared are thus not a real breakthrough yet. Also, quite surprisingly, English is listed as the preferred language is all three countries. If Squared would thus be used by someone with little knowledge about the Caucasus, it would give a slightly misleading picture.

All in all, very little information is to be found about any topics on the Caucasus. For more advanced purposes and social science research related to Caucasus, it is simply not a useful tool. In comparison to the usual Google search and Google Scholar, it is difficult to see the additional advantages and usefulness that Squared would bring. Google points out that the program is only in its experimental stage, and it remains to be seen if a person wishing to deepen their knowledge about different topics in the Caucasus could gain from Google Squared in the future.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Education in Georgian Schools | Research Findings from TIMSS

On Monday, 5 October Tiko Ambroladze and Tamuna Khoshtaria, junior fellows at the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) in Georgia, gave a policy paper presentation on “Education in Georgian schools – 4th Grade Students’ Achievements and Its Determinants”. The study is based on data from Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). TIMSS is a systematic study of educational achievement carried out every fourth year (the most recent in 2007), testing students but also collecting different information from students, teachers and school principals. The aim of TIMSS is to help countries improve teaching and learning in mathematics and sciences.

Ambroladze and Khoshtaria’s study concludes that the eight following factors have a statistically significant impact on students’ achievements. First, gender turned out to be significant on the math regression model. The study shows that boys score better on the math tests than girls, but gender was not a determining factor for science achievement scores.

Second, the study shows that having many books at home has a positive effect on students’ achievements. Therefore, the fellows recommend more school libraries, specific reading classes in schools, and that schools should put a special emphasize on reading. A point highlighted by the audience was, however, that the number of books at home does not necessarily mean that the students read them. More important might be the level of education of the parents, and the number of books could then be an indication of the level of the parents’ education. More research would thus be needed in order to establish in what way the number of books at home has on students’ achievements.

Third, if students have had something stolen in school, have been left out from school activities or have been made do something they did not want to do (i.e. bullied), they score less well on tests than students that do not have these problems. Interestingly, this turned out to be the factor that had most effect on students’ performance. In this regard, Ambroladze and Khoshtaria’s main recommendation was to improve security and to resolve safety problems in schools.

Fourth, and somewhat surprisingly, class size only had a small effect on students’ performance, and it can therefore be questioned whether smaller classes would improve the scores. In any case, the study points out that more research is needed in this area.

The fifth factor deals with students’ attitudes towards school and the study shows, again rather unexpectedly, that students that like school perform worse on the math tests than others. One of the possible explanations that the fellows put forward is that the students who like being at school and have fun spend less time studying. This is only one possible assumption, though, and it highlights the need for more research in determining the reasons between the connections between students’ attitudes and achievements in school.

Sixth, being able to work independently and being given the opportunity to work out problems on one’s own had a positive effect on math scores but was not significant for science. The fellows’ recommendation is, therefore, that children should be allowed to work independently more frequently, but also that there is a need for further research in this area in order to assist the development of appropriate policies.

Seventh, the study shows that parental support and doing homework is significant for students’ achievements. Therefore, Ambroladze and Khoshtaria recommend that those students that do not have the possibility to study at home should be given the option to come to school to do their homework, and parents should to a greater extent be involved in school activities. However, the fellows pointed out the importance of not giving too much homework as it can result in a lack of motivation.

Finally, computers and the Internet contributed negatively to fourth graders’ achievements. The assumption is that they are primarily used for games, rather than for learning. Therefore the recommendation is that the usage of computers and Internet should be controlled and parents should be informed about the potential negative role of computers. It was pointed out by the fellows and the audience that it is important to know how often computers are used in the 4th grade and to have data on the schools that actually have access to computers.

Looking at these eight factors that have a statistically significant impact on students’ achievements, some important general recommendations can be provided, while also accentuating the need for secondary analyzes. The ambition is thus that the study can be used as a basis for highlighting areas that are in need of further improvements. As there have been no other studies of this kind in Georgia based on TIMSS, this study offers much valuable reflections and recommendations on the issue. It is important that the results from the study become publically accessible with more debates around teaching and learning in Georgian schools. Unquestionably, there is a need for further research focusing on what determines Georgian students’ achievements.

Additional presentations can be given upon request by contacting CRRC Georgia.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The EU's IIFFMCG Report

Established by a decision from the Council of the European Union on 2 December 2008 and headed by Swiss Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (IIFFMCG) was undertaken by a Senior Advisory Panel (see the list in Volume I, pp. 40-41), which received help from different experts in a number of governments and organizations, including some from the parties involved in or closely related to the conflict, namely, Russia, South Ossetia, Georgia, and Abkhazia. The main office was based in Geneva, a second one was set up in Tbilisi, and the Mission's members made numerous visits to key sites of the conflict, including the Roki tunnel and the Akhalgori region.

As the report makes clear, the eight-month undertaking is a first for the EU in that it made a decision "to intervene in an armed conflict" (Vol. I, p. 2). It also stresses that the Mission is not a "tribunal" but is aimed at conveying the facts so as to ameliorate confidence- and peace-building measures. Its primary goals were to analyze how the conflict began as well as the subsequent course it followed (Art. 1.2, p. 3). Point 7 (Vol. I, p. 7) emphasizes that the Report is keen to present an official version amidst the maelstrom of views, accusations, and other media, though it also clearly states that it is not able to "claim veracity or completeness in an absolute sense" (Vol. I, point 9, p. 8).

Following an overview of Georgia's turbulent post-Soviet era, Volume I states that Georgia's military response was not justifiable under international law, even if it were in response to S. Ossetian militias shelling Georgian neighborhoods, i.e. GRAD multiple rocket launchers (MRLS) would be considered as disproportionate use of force by the Georgian military (point 9, pp. 22-23). Further, point 20 (p. 23) mentions that Georgian forces did not have the right to attack Russian peacekeepers.

Point 27 (pp. 26-27) addresses the allegations of genocide made by Russia and S. Ossetia against Georgia. The Report concludes that these allegations were unfounded and goes on to remark that it found evidence S. Ossetian and "irregular" armed units forcibly displaced ethnic Georgians following the start of the war. Moreover, the Mission found that this situation remains a serious concern in the Akhalgori district (point 27, p. 27), which is at the southeast end of South Ossetia and is populated mainly by ethnic Georgians.

Volume II is vast (441 pp.). Made up of contributions from the panel of experts, and divided into eight sections, it is a comprehensive overview of Georgian-Russian relations, replete with sources and exclusive interviews, that claims to be both descriptive and to serve as a "legal analysis" (297), particularly with chapter 7, entitled International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law. It does indeed serve as a formidable academic work, similar to an International Crisis Group report, for instance. Of special interest are several field interviews conducted by the Mission's experts. Pages 302 and 331, for example, cite interviews with inhabitants who reported that S. Ossetian military men and Russian (i.e. North Caucasian) and Uzbek irregulars looted, burned houses, and stole civilian cars. With such examples, the chapter, while careful not to state in plain terms whether Russian forces committed war crimes (e.g. using words like "may amount to..." (330)), does offer both a narrative that takes the element of civilian suffering fully into account and an analysis that cites examples of incidents directly tied to violations of international law and human rights abuses.

Volume III is a sprawling 638 pages of chronological entries and responses to questionnaires from the four parties which is intended to be a transparent listing of the gathered facts.

In terms of critcism of the report, as Ahto Lobjakas pointed out in his RFE/RL article, simply laying out the facts without making a definitive stand, and thus leaving them open to interpretation, may only serve to further inflate the rhetorical jousting between adversaries.

For example, although Georgia's Foreign Minister, Grigol Vashadze, said that the Report was "helpful " for Tbilisi, he decried that it did not explicitly indict Russia for military aggression. He also disagreed with the Report's mention of Georgia using "unnecessary" force.

Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizkov, on the other hand, was more positive on the findings, saying that the blame was rightly placed more on the Georgian side, referring to the shelling of Tskhinvali on the night of 7/8 August (Vol. I point 3, p. 11).

Thus, as more articles and news about the Mission's report appear, what remains certain is that the debate will go on... perhaps as heatedly as it did before.