Vol. 4, No. 6 (March 15, 2011)

Exchanges and information: IREX’s contribution to human capital development in Azerbaijan

Sarah Hennessey
Country Director

IREX (www.irex.az) was formally established as a non-governmental organization in Azerbaijan in 1998, but has been facilitating exchanges between Azerbaijan and the US since 1968.  In the past five years alone, IREX has sent more than 150 teachers, scholars, NGO and business leaders, and students from Azerbaijan to the United States on US State Department-funded exchange programs.  Currently, IREX implements two exchange programs—the Global UGRAD program, and the Edmund S. Muskie graduate fellowship program—as well as the Azerbaijan New Media Program.

All of IREX’s programs make contributions toward human capital development in Azerbaijan—that is, the nurturing of people’s skills and abilities and the usage of their talents to make the world a better place.  In this sense, people are one of Azerbaijan’s greatest natural resources.  If petroleum companies spend time and money finding the most effective ways to take oil from the ground, so should governments, NGOs, and institutions spend time and money finding the most effective way to use the brainpower and the skills of individuals to benefit a country and the world.

IREX’s USAID-funded Azerbaijan New Media Program makes resources available to young people in Azerbaijan who wish to learn more about new media, the internet, or the basics of using a computer.  Community Information Centers (CICs) currently operate in eleven different regions of Azerbaijan with plans to expand to eight more regions in the next two years.  The CICs offer free access to anyone wishing to use a computer and/or the internet.  CICs also offer training on topics ranging from the basics of web browsing to the more nuanced uses of social media.  These programs contribute to human capital development in Azerbaijan by bringing internet access (and by virtue information access) to those who want to learn new information or share information.  If one person wants to research new techniques for planting crops in rocky soil, and another wants to post YouTube clips of a Talysh dance, both are adding to the knowledge base in Azerbaijan and the world.  

The educational exchanges that IREX facilitates target undergraduate students (the Global UGRAD program) and anyone who has completed university and wishes to study at the Masters level (the Edmund S. Muskie graduate fellowship program).  UGRAD is for the undergraduate students who speak English and are looking to experience a year at a US university and immerse themselves in US culture; UGRAD students also serve as ambassadors of Azerbaijan, sharing cultural presentations in their towns and at their universities across America.  UGRAD alumni return and finish their university degrees in Azerbaijan.  They go on to work in all sectors.  Employers find UGRAD alumni attractive because they are able to multitask, think critically, they have good public speaking skills, and they have good communication skills—skills which all students have, but which UGRAD students have a chance to refine and strengthen during their time in the US.  

The Muskie program is for those looking to gain Masters-level study that will help them to advance in their field and that will benefit the society of Azerbaijan as a whole.  Muskie fellows study in fields like public administration, business, and economics—fields that are growing in Azerbaijan and that add to the forward movement of the country.  After studying in the US, some Muskie fellows return to their same places of work, while others move to positions of more responsibility or management in different organizations.  Muskie alumni work as teachers, writers, in the Central Bank, in private business, for NGOs—again, in all sectors in Azerbaijan.  

The connection between higher education and human capital development might seem fairly obvious, but it is important to note that it is not just the acquisition of more education or a degree that adds to human capital development.  IREX places strong emphasis on having alumni of exchange programs “give back”—that is, contribute ideas, visions, and encouragement to their communities.  UGRAD and Muskie alumni are afforded a large number of opportunities to network, socialize, and volunteer.  IREX sponsors a number of activities during the year—a monthly book club and movie nights, various networking events, as well as volunteer opportunities like an annual clean-up of the beach at Nabran.  IREX supports the efforts of the US-Educated Azerbaijan Alumni Association, which brings together alumni of all US exchange programs and those who have studied independently in the US.  IREX also offers small grant opportunities, which allow alumni to develop and implement their own ideas to change their communities and to positively affect Azerbaijan.  This is one of the most exciting areas of human capital development, seeing people do great things with only a few resources.  Alumni are full of great ideas and positive energy, and they dream up many big ideas and see them realized with lots of energy and creativity.  Last year, for example, alumni provided dental care and training on oral health to children from internats.  This year, alumni will implement programs like a stop smoking campaign and an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign.   

The government of Azerbaijan is taking many steps and constantly increasing the human capital development of the country.  The State Scholarship is a wonderful initiative, and will help to develop the future business, government, and economic leaders of Azerbaijan.  Expanding exchanges that bring students to Azerbaijan would be another step.  Educational exchanges are one of the easiest ways to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions while at the same time contributing to the educational development of a young person.  Creating opportunities for foreign students to study in Azerbaijan will expose them to language, music, and culture that they might otherwise not know of; it also provides opportunities for Azerbaijan to share its expertise with, and to contribute to, the human capital development of the world.