SEATTLE — The Caucasus and Central Asia is one of the fastest growing regions in the world. A strong energy sector has helped curtail the region’s poverty rates, which have declined precipitously since 1996. A 2013 report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) notes that countries in the region have scored “significant achievements during the two decades since their independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
While the years immediately following the Soviet Union’s 1991 dissolution were rife with political and economic challenges, including a major depression and a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Caucasus and Central Asian countries averaged a 7 percent growth rate between 1996 and 2011. Nations like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan recorded double-digit growth in GDP between 2000 and 2007 before that growth stalled in the wake of the global financial crisis.
According to a 2014 IMF report, countries in the region still face certain challenges in their transitions to emerging markets. Regional growth has been volatile and is heavily reliant on energy sources (oil and gas exporters Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan boast the region’s highest GDPs per capita). Regional cooperation remains relatively weak, and unresolved conflicts – including tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan — could complicate matters further. Improving regional cooperation and global integration will be essential for further diversification and growth in the region.
The IMF report also advocates the pursuit of “ambitious policy and structural reforms” in the region, specifically citing a need for improved fiscal frameworks.
While the future holds its share of challenges, countries in the Caucusus and Central Asia appear to have the human capital and educational resources to meet them. The region boasts a nearly 100 percent literacy rate – a product of its inclusion in the literacy-bent Soviet Union. Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University, which conducts all of its classes in English, attracts lecturers from all over the world. The region will soon be home to world’s first internationally chartered institution of higher education, the University of Central Asia (UCA). UCA, still in the process of construction, will feature three campuses in significant mountain communities in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan.
UCA graduates will be particularly well-suited to meet Central Asia’s developmental challenges. The university was founded in 2000 by His Highness the Aga Khan, with the goal of promoting socio-economic development in Central Asia. The university will serve students from the communities surrounding the campuses, as well as students from countries across Central Asia. UCA programs will focus on key social and economic issues facing the region, with an eye toward cultural sustainability and the preservation of the region’s rich and diverse cultural heritages.
In addition to its wealth of energy resources, the Caucasus and Central Asia’s strong educational foundation will no doubt be a great asset as it prepares to meet the political and economic challenges ahead.
– Parker Carroll