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Moving 4 Degrees South

Victor Neagu's picture
We talk so frequently about how we shape our work and yet rarely about how our work shapes us. Let me explain. I recently moved 4 degrees in latitude – from Chisinau, Moldova to Almaty, Kazakhstan, on a six-month development assignment – and it has been fascinating to discover in just one week how similar our collective mentalities are!

With good tail wind, it takes about 5 hours to reach Almaty by plane from Istanbul. Twenty three years ago, Moldova and Kazakhstan were part of the same large union, with direct flights connecting Chisinau to the capital cities of every other former Soviet republic. Just over two decades ago, you could experience the same difficulty buying a kilo of bananas if you lived in Chisinau, Almaty or Minsk. As a result the word “deficit” was used more frequently than “mother” across the Soviet Union.

Today, you can fly to every capital city in Central Asia via Istanbul and you can find imported bananas in supermarkets across every former Soviet republic. But, you will rarely find Kazakh goods in Moldova, or indeed the other way around. Why is that and what does that tell me about our development paths over the past two decades?

First of all, when it comes to politics, society and the economy, I would suggest that the collective mentality in many of the former Soviet countries continues to be shaped by a degree of skepticism and distrust. This stems from a profound suspicion that the perception of reality was skewed. With a few exceptions – “cognac is best in this country and dairy is most natural in that country,” for example – there is limited appetite to consume non-Western goods.

Building the trust of citizens in a country’s capacity to deliver a predictable, accountable and transparent environment in which everyone can operate is essential to dynamic social and economic progress. And, greater trust, along with a “more level playing field”, ultimately translate into more economic activity and trade, more people-to-people contact, better politics and more inclusive prosperity.

Secondly, while that same collective mentality strives for modernization it often remains stuck doing things “the old way”. In Moldova, for example, an expensive e-gate system at the country’s main international airport that is supposed to enable biometric passport holders to enter the country through a simple scan is either broken (most of the time) or manned by a border guard. This is the ABC of turning an e-gate into a traditional gate (which then means you need to ask somebody to open it – hence the border guard presence).

In Kazakhstan, a green customs line means that every person gets his or her bags scanned upon exiting Almaty airport. The red line is closed, because it is assumed that most people have nothing to declare, so why bother asking them to declare something when you can simply scan their bags through the green line? After all, why do you need an outdated red line concept when the modern green line one can do it for you? Modernization means doing things differently.
 
Technology in Kazakhstan

Thirdly, the collective mentality manages to generate exceptional ideas. In Kazakhstan, the first thing that I heard about the World Bank was in a news report from a national TV channel. It praised the Bank’s cooperation with the Government in linking scientific innovations to the market by mutually providing grant financing for great ideas. The Kazakhstan Technology Commercialization Project is doing some amazing things to help turn innovation capacity into viable economic activity.

In Moldova, a country praised for its good wine, concentration on traditional markets and a lack of attention to high-quality in the past meant that big producers preferred to sell large volumes cheaply to stable customers. New companies are now coming onboard and changing the way things are done. A focus on quality and consistency is helping new producers to gain market share, sell at much higher prices and enshrine a culture of competition and good quality. The World Bank has supported such improvements, through the Competitiveness Enhancement Project for example, and today, some of these companies are making the global news scene and showing everyone how doing things the right way pays-off in the long-term.
 
Moldovan wine

The main lesson I take away from these past seven days is that there is plenty of good news ahead for Moldova and Kazakhstan. I am confident that one day Kazakhstan’s innovations will be taken onboard by Moldovan entrepreneurs and competitive Moldovan exports will be abundant in Kazakhstan. I just hope to be there to help shape and be shaped by these changes!

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