Tuesday, April 20, 2010

South Ossetia: Enhancing the Public Debate

On 15 April, in front of a packed house at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tbilisi, Ron Asmus led a public debate on his new book, A Little War that Shook the World. The evening featured the kind of discussion one would expect: the strategic interests of Russia, the US and Europe, Georgia’s path to democracy and the international mechanisms and organizations that failed to prevent the 2008 August war in South Ossetia.

I will not go into the actual details of the debate, since there was nothing people interested in the Caucasus have not heard before. Instead, I want to use it as an opportunity to illustrate how seemingly smaller-scale research can enhance public debate. Some of the CRRC’s recent projects on the August war and its aftermath, for example, might help to go beyond the usual geostrategic–political rhetoric bandied about.

On 9-10 April 2010 the CRRC, in collaboration with Saferworld, held five focus groups with participants from villages near the administrative boundary line (ABL) with South Ossetia. Focus groups (FG) are a research tool that can help to shed light on the public’s opinions on specific topics. They complement other tools like surveys, where issues and opinions are quantified, by providing insight into how those opinions come into being and the reasons people adopt them.

In the discussions that evolved around questions about community safety and citizens’ understandings of conflict, it quickly became apparent that those who are most affected by the war have a genuine interest in solving the underlying conflict. Many of the FG participants pointed out that mixed Georgian–Ossetian ties go back centuries, and their lives were drastically altered when the ABL between Georgia and South Ossetia was closed. No longer are people allowed to travel freely to see friends or family or to engage in cross-border trade. According to the participants, these severe changes increase the economic and psychological trauma brought about by the war.

It is these everyday concerns of the people most affected that the CRRC wants to reveal to the public. Debates on geostrategic issues, such as the one held by Asmus last week, are important for understanding how the war broke out. However, they generate few concrete recommendations for resolving the problems already existent in the war’s aftermath – problems which are acute for the communities in the areas surrounding South Ossetia.

By giving a voice to the people in the area, the CRRC and Saferworld hope to help refocus public discourse on the most important issue when it comes to geostrategy: making the lives of people safe and peaceful.

The report is not quite public yet, but to be notified when it becomes available, please contact Malte (malte.viefhues@crrccenters.org) or Jesse (jesse.tatum@crrccenters.org).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Abortion rates in the South Caucasus among the highest in the world

Last month we wrote a blog post on gender imbalance in the South Caucasus showing that there is an abnormal high number of boys being born in the region. Several comments were posted on the blog site that brought attention to abortion rates in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, induced abortion was used as a means of fertility control due to the lack of effective contraception methods. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization, the number of induced abortions worldwide started decreasing in the mid 1990s and the most dramatic decline occurred in Eastern Europe. In the South Caucasus, however, abortion rates remain high.

Data show that the South Caucasus countries have among the highest abortion rates in the world. The official number of induced abortions is not extremely high but this statistics should also not be considered completely reliable due to underreporting. According to UN data from 2004-2005 there are nine abortions per 1 000 women of reproductive age (15-49 years) in Azerbaijan, 13.9 Armenia and 19.1 in Georgia. This can be compared to for example 1.3 in Austria and 5.7 in Croatia. The most alarming numbers can be found in Russia though with more than 50 abortions per 1 000 women of reproductive age. Nevertheless, data from other sources present higher abortion rates for the South Caucasus. The Reproductive Health Surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a Demographic Health Survey in Armenia (both from 2005) look at total abortion rates, which is the expected average number of abortion a woman will have during her reproductive years. The total abortion rate is 1.8 abortions per woman in Armenia, 3.2 in Azerbaijan and 3.7 in Georgia. Thereby the abortion rates in Georgia are the highest in the former Soviet Union and are estimated to be among the highest in the world.

It is being argued that the reason for the high abortion rates in the South Caucasus is the lack of modern contraception. The prevalence of modern contraception methods (the percentage of women of reproductive age, married or in union, currently using contraception) was, according to UN statistics, 13 percent in Azerbaijan in 2006, which is among the lowest of the former Soviet Union countries and below most other countries in the world. As a point of comparison, the prevalence in the U.S. was 68 percent in 2002.

High abortion rates have consequences both for the individual woman and for the society as a whole. Abortions bring health risks, especially in countries such as Georgia where the government’s spending on health care is low and most people do not have access to adequate health care. Some abortions take place outside of medical facilities, leading to complications and in some cases even deaths. Even in cases of legal abortions there is a risk of post-abortion medical problems when the quality of medical service is low. According to a survey carried out by the Open Society Institute’s Network Public Health Programs, half of all Georgian women consider abortion a health risk. Moreover, according to data from the UN, the fertility rates in the South Caucasus are among the lowest in the world. In Azerbaijan, the fertility rate is 1.82, in Georgia 1.41 and in Armenia 1.39 (the world average is 2.55). It means for example that the Georgian population is expected to decrease from 4.2 million in 2010 to 3.3 million in 2050. You can read more about the implications of low fertility rates on the UN Population Division website.

To return to the previous blog post on gender imbalance, the societies’ preference for boys is nothing new but the practice of selective induced abortion has put this preference into practice. The distorted sex ratios in the South Caucasus question the explanation that high abortion rates are a matter of lack of access to contraception methods. We have found little up-to-date information on this and would be grateful if anyone can post links with references to relevant research on abortion in the South Caucasus.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Research on Education of IDP Children in Georgia

On 29 March the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) held a presentation in Tbilisi of the research report “Not Displaced, Out-of-Place – Education of IDP children in Georgia”. The research project examines the academic performance of children in so-called Abkhaz public IDP schools in comparison with children in local schools. The research was conducted in the 13 remaining Abkhaz public schools for IDPs that were established in the early 1990s, in the newly established Tserovani School for children displaced from South Ossetia, and in local schools.

The main finding from the research shows that IDP children are disadvantaged in the education system. It has, however, more to do with their economic situation than their IDP status. Pupils from Abkhaz public schools do relatively well in some science subjects, but worse in others. A consequence is that the amount of pupils from Abkhaz public schools that enter higher education is lower than the amount of pupils from local schools.

For different reasons it has long been the case that many pupils use private tutors to be better prepared for the national entry exams (NEE). Private tutors are considered the primary factor that determines success in the NEEs. As IDP families are generally poorer than non-IDP families, they are less able to afford private tutors, leaving the pupils less well-prepared for the NEE. Moreover, research shows that performance is strongly related to conditions in the schools and at home. For many pupils in Abkhaz public school, neither the schools nor the homes provide an environment conducive to studying. The report shows that Abkhaz public schools are in worse state than local schools, and in some cases even dangerous.

As a positive finding, the research shows that IDPs are discriminated against to a lesser extent today than a couple of years ago. It differs between the regions, though: the situation is best in Tbilisi, whilst in other places discrimination against IDP children is significant. As a result, parents move their children from local schools to Abkhaz public schools. It raises the questions whether Abkhaz public schools should be closed down in order to avoid a segregated system, or if they should remain as a way of ensuring that IDP children get to go to school in an environment free of discrimination.

The audience agreed that the most preferable solution is to improve the standard in the Abkhaz public schools, thus also attracting non-IDPs. As a summarizing remark, the audience also called for the Georgian government to step up and spend more money on education. According to statistics from UNESCO, Georgia is one of the former Soviet countries that spends smallest part of the budget on education. In 2007 Georgia spent 2.7 percent of the GDP on education, in comparison to for example 6.6 percent in Kyrgyzstan and 5.3 percent in Ukraine.

Read more about education of IDP children on NRC Georgia's website. You will also find several articles on education in Georgia here on the blog site.