In an exclusive interview, the USAID Mission Director in Azerbaijan, Dr. Jay Singh, tells the Azeri Observer Magazine about the main focus of their activities and the projects supported by the agency, which help change lives for the better. He also speaks on the elements that are essential to the success of a country, why investing in women and girls is important, and what non-oil sectors of the Azerbaijani economy have potential. Finally, he gives an overview of the assistance provided to organizations supporting THE COVID-19 response and reflects on the future of tourism in Azerbaijan after the pandemic.
AZERI OBSERVER EDITORIAL STAFF
Question: What is the mission of USAID in Azerbaijan? Who are the main beneficiaries of your activity? How have your goals here changed since 1991?
Answer: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) works in over 100 countries, and I’ve personally worked in close to 20 of them. In Azerbaijan, our goal is to continue to build a lasting friendship, and an enduring partnership with Azerbaijan by investing in our mutual security and prosperity. We support the Azerbaijani government’s efforts to diversify the economy, create a transparent and open environment to maximize human capital and to attract investment, and advance the prosperity of the Azerbaijani people. We achieve this by working with rural communities across Azerbaijan eager to support their development; women and girls who aspire to be leaders and entrepreneurs; farmers, agribusinesses and business associations who want to catalyze Azerbaijan’s economic diversification; as well as civil society and the media who are passionate about making their country a better place.
USAID has stood in partnership with Azerbaijan since its first days of independence. We began by providing lifesaving humanitarian assistance to people fleeing the conflict in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Later, we transitioned to programs that supported the broader economic, social, health and political development of the Azerbaijani people and their newly independent country. Our relationship with the government and people of Azerbaijan has evolved and deepened over time. I now view our portfolio as a co-investment with the people and government of Azerbaijan in our shared future. We continuously evaluate and adapt our programming to best support our countries’ mutual goals, and our unique model of engagement yields significant results.
Q.: What USAID project in Azerbaijan makes you especially proud?
A.: I am very proud of the work my USAID mission and the U.S. Embassy have done in women’s economic and social advancement in Azerbaijan. The U.S. and Azerbaijan both gave suffrage rights to women in 1919. Azerbaijan was the first country with a Muslim-majority to do so. Despite this progress over a 100 years ago, women are often overlooked in their potential to lead, fight and govern. I have been studying Azerbaijani history, and the country has a fascinating history of women taking up arms to protect their country. In the U.S., we have made great strides in women in the military and leading major corporations. In fact, the mid-term elections in 2018 brought a record number of women to serve as representatives in our Congress. I see that potential here as well! The future of Azerbaijan lies in the strength of its women. Investing in women and girls is fundamental to the success of any country and this truth is at the core of USAID programming. When women are economically empowered, they re-invest in their families and communities, producing a multiplier effect that spurs economic growth and contributes to global peace and stability. I am especially proud that the First Vice President and President also share this perspective, and we are happy to support their vision.
We support three Women’s Resource Centers with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the State Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Affairs in southern Masalli, northwestern Zaqatala and northern Khachmaz in Azerbaijan, which have helped 98 women open their own businesses. These entrepreneurs have been able to provide jobs to 26 more women in their communities, increasing incomes for rural women and their families.
Many of the entrepreneurs we support come from families who never thought that women could be entrepreneurs prior to knowing one. Their success inspires others in the community to consider the option of opening their own business. These new businesses will drive the growth of Azerbaijan’s economy as we recover from the impact of the pandemic. I’m excited to report that my team has successfully secured additional resources to expand our programming in Azerbaijan aimed at increasing women’s economic power and leadership.
Q.: USAID implements a number of projects to support economic diversification and promote economic growth in Azerbaijan. What areas of Azerbaijani economy do you consider the most promising? Tell us about your projects which contribute to the development of these areas.
A.: Azerbaijan is a young country with a young and dynamic workforce. We really see potential in small and medium business development, including through increasing the number of women entrepreneurs. We see a lot of potential in agriculture. We are working with the Azerbaijani government, the private sector, and rural farmers to improve good growing practices, the efficiency of Azerbaijan’s farms, and the quality of Azerbaijani fruits, vegetables and nuts. We help farmers and processors to meet international quality standards needed to export to new markets in Europe and the Middle East. Our efforts have paid off. In the past five years, Azerbaijani farmers, producers and exporters have turned our investment in technical assistance into over $80 million dollars of agricultural exports, including over $25 million to new markets in Europe and the Middle East. We are also committed to building the capacity of business and professional associations because they have a platform we can use to multiply our impact. Our assistance to the Azerbaijan Hazelnut Producers and Exporters Association has helped Azerbaijani hazelnuts reach new markets in over 20 countries around the world. Because agriculture is an essential service, our work to provide technical assistance to farmers and producers has continued throughout the pandemic.
Q.: What are Azerbaijan’s strengths and weaknesses in the sphere of good governance? How do USAID-supported projects help make a difference in this area?
A.: USAID strongly believes that there are a few elements that are essential to the success of a country – a vibrant civil society and independent media, having women in positions of power and influence, and a mutual commitment from government and citizens to an open dialogue towards positive change. There are many different systems of government, and none of them are perfect. The best thing that a country, its government and citizens can do is to continue asking each other hard questions and striving for better. As a career diplomat with USAID, I know very well that government bureaucracy on its own is not going to find the creative, innovative solutions needed to propel our countries forward. We need diverse voices and ideas from civil society, the private sector, academia, youth, and women to inspire us to reach for goals we have not yet considered. Azerbaijan is a young country, and we see a lot of support for reform to improve the delivery of services to citizens, the environment for small and medium businesses, and the investment climate. As a country that has been working towards our own better governance for 244 years, the United States stands ready to share lessons that we have learned with our Azerbaijani partners and provide technical assistance as needed. USAID will continue to support productive dialogue between the government and its citizens that uplifts lives, creates new opportunities, and advances the prosperity and success of the Azerbaijani people. But make no mistake, we have a lot to learn from Azerbaijan as well – I am really impressed with ASAN and their ability to simplify access to critical government services. I would love to see something like that back home!
Q.: Tell us how USAID projects changed the lives of an individual or family in Azerbaijan.
A.: One of the most fulfilling parts of working with USAID is that I have so many stories to tell. I will share a story of a young woman that I find particularly moving as we recognize World Day Against Trafficking in Persons in July. This young woman had been sold by her parents at a very young age. She bounced between living situations. A woman she lived with as a young teenager forced her to work in a retail shop even though she was still a minor. While working at the shop, she was raped by a man she trusted and subsequently told to leave. Fortunately, police were able to refer her to one of the shelters we support in Baku, Clean World Public Union. She arrived suicidal and broken, but the shelter gave her a safe place to live, mental health treatment, and opportunities to learn vocational skills that would allow her to earn her own income and be less dependent on others. She enrolled in a USAID-supported tailoring course provided at the shelter where she learned how to sew. When the COVID-19 pandemic started in Azerbaijan, she used her newfound skills and confidence to teach the other women in the shelter how to sew masks. With her leadership, they were able to sew over a thousand reusable cloth masks to donate to organizations and people in need in Baku. As a USAID Mission Director, the power of that 17-year old – a young woman about the age of my own son – to overcome all those challenges and make a difference in her own community during a crisis is what I find truly inspiring about our investment here. And this is just one example of the types of positive impacts that beneficiaries of USAID programs have on their communities across Azerbaijan and around the world. I also cannot understate the importance of the work of the Clean World Women’s Shelter and Azerbaijan Children’s Union Shelter in Baku, and TAMAS Regional Development Public Union shelter in Ganja we support with the International Organization for Migration. In 2019 alone, these shelters have served 700 vulnerable women and children affected by trafficking in persons and domestic violence.
Q.: Have you developed an action plan to support the areas affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
A.: The Ambassador and I have worked very hard since the beginning of March, as soon as the first COVID-19 cases were registered in Azerbaijan, to secure resources from our headquarters in Washington to support Azerbaijan’s COVID-19 response. We knew that because Azerbaijan shares a border with Iran – one of the countries first hit hard by the pandemic – that Azerbaijan’s response would be important to mitigating the effects of the pandemic in the region. Since March, our work has helped secure $3.6 million for key organizations supporting COVID-19 response in Azerbaijan, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Committee of the Red Cross, the national Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society and UNICEF. This assistance has helped to provide critical food and hygiene supplies to vulnerable families and individuals across Azerbaijan, and inform people how to stay safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19. We are also a funder of the REACT-C19 project, which brought 19 doctors of Azerbaijani origin from Turkey to work as consultants with local hospitals. These doctors helped hospitals improve their operations to better meet the needs of patients during the pandemic. We know that the quarantine regime to control the spread of disease has created many hardships for people. This makes our other work on socio-economic development projects, small and medium business development, and agriculture even more important. This important work has continued during the pandemic, and we will continue to stand with the Azerbaijani people through the recovery from this crisis.
Q.: What is your brightest impression during your tenure in Azerbaijan?
A.: I am truly humbled and grateful for my opportunity to serve in Azerbaijan. At USAID, being a Mission Director is the highest position in any country, and for a senior career diplomat at USAID, it is the ultimate honor and testament of one’s career journey. I am so proud to serve in that capacity in Azerbaijan. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many of the inspiring women and men who have worked with us to achieve great accomplishments. And in each region I visit, I get to experience the local flavor of Azerbaijani hospitality. I never realized that there are so many different types of lula kebabs! Every region is unique in how they make it and through the breaking of bread and sharing of excellent armud glasses of tea, I have come to appreciate and fall in love with this country. It is the perfect country for a tourist because each region has such diverse landscapes, food and traditions, but the distances between them are small enough that you have time to get a taste for them all. Tourism has slowed during the pandemic, but USAID is excited to support the development of agritourism and ecotourism so that the rural tourism sector can be ready to provide unique experiences to domestic and foreign tourists when global travel picks up again.