Role Of Science And Technology In Oil-rich Kazakhstan
Despite its many advances in recent years, Kazakhstan remains a mystery to many people in the western world, writes Martin Banks.
While the country is an important oil and gas producer, the Kazakhstan government sees science, technology and education playing a major role in the nation’s progress.
Indeed, top of the agenda in his state of the union address to the nation in January, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke of the importance of investing in science and “the development of new high-tech sectors”.
Such industries, he noted, include everything from mobile and multimedia technology to nano and space technology.
The nation’s focus on science was sharpened in 2011 when the Kazakhstan ministry of science and education passed legislation which recognizes the importance of research and gives it priority.
The following year, in November 2012, the great strides made in recent years in the fields of business, science and technology, was acknowledged when Astana, the capital, was selected to host of the prestige Expo 2017, beating the Belgian city of Liège in the process.
It will be Kazakhstan’s first world’s fair and the first in Central Asia.
The expo’s theme is ‘Future Energy’, and its seeks to create a global debate between countries, NGOs, companies and the public on the crucial question: “How do we ensure safe and sustainable access to energy for all while reducing CO2 emissions?”
Its choice to host such a prestigious event is seen by many as recognition of Kazakhstan’s success in becoming one of the fastest growing economies in the region of Central and Eastern Europe.
A number of recent economic, social and political reforms have contributed to improving the quality of life in Kazakhstan and, importantly, laying the foundation for an education system that aims to keep strides with those of its neighbours in the EU.
In education, many reforms have taken place in recent years to improve the status, quality and structure of schooling.
These include increasing the total state expenditure on education and improving access to primary and secondary education. Kazakhstan has also made progress in maintaining a low student-teacher ratio, a bane of the education system in the West.
Prospects for science and technology received a big shot in the arm with the opening of the President Nazarbayev University, a personal initiative of the president and which aims to become the first research and world-class university in Kazakhstan.
Its activities correlate with the main priorities of the country itself, including the development of advanced research capacity, innovation in technology and industry, and the transition to a system of education that meets the demands of a changing and globally integrated economy.
The university meets international educational standards and seeks to elevate the Kazakh education system to an international level. It’s the first university in Kazakhstan committed to working according to international academic standards and the principles of autonomy and academic freedom.
Launched in 1993, the presidential programme ‘Bolashak’ is a recognized locomotive of the education system. The program has allowed Kazakhstan to join the global system of training high quality professionals and to create the conditions for the transfer of world technologies in the Kazakh economic and social space.
Since its inception it has created more than 11 thousand highly educated professionals, including more than 2 thousand industrial and agricultural sector workers, about 2 thousand experts in the education sector, about a thousand experts in information technology and communications, and 600 medical professionals, more than 400 civil servants, 85 PhD holders and about 2500 professionals in socio-humanitarian sphere.
Currently about 1 500 scholarship holders are studying abroad. Almost a quarter of all graduates now occupy senior positions, and are part of the intellectual elite of the country.
Of course, it is the world’s great financial centres of New York, London, and Tokyo that have led the way in economic prosperity for decades. But the giants are now facing competition from dozens of smaller, ambitious challengers.
And these include Kazakhstan.
Earlier this year, Nazarbayev, with one eye on the city’s potential, announced plans to create the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC), an ambitious project to cement Kazakhstan’s position as a leading centre for finance.
Set to officially launch on January 1, 2018, the AIFC will use the innovative infrastructure already built for EXPO-2017 and will be modelled on Dubai’s own financial centre. The AIFC promised to be a financial hub for Central Asia, the Caucasus, EAEU, the Middle East, West China, Mongolia and Europe.
It is yet more evidence of an ever-thriving Kazakh business environment.
Indeed, the appeal of investing in Kazakhstan was underscored most recently in a series of business indexes which rank 140 countries against each other based on how the regulatory environment is conducive to business operations.
According to the World Bank, ease of doing business in Kazakhstan improved to 41 in 2015 from 53 in 2014. In comparison, Kyrgyzstan came in at 67th, and Tajikistan was ranked at 132nd.
This was the best result the country had achieved in the history of participating in the global competitiveness index ranking.
Separately, the country also performed well in terms of its “business-friendly” environment in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2015-2016.
Speaking about Kazakhstan’s positive economic impact the European Commission senior official responsible for Entrepreneurship and Business Support, Xavier van Cutsem, said: “Nazarbayev has distinguished himself among his Central Asian peers by beginning to think beyond commodity wealth, steadily edging Astana towards the more elusive and valuable ingredients for a prosperous modern economy: effective and efficient business regulations.
“He has secured a number of domestic accomplishments that have made Kazakhstan the most attractive state for investment in Central Asia. Despite all the challenges Kazakhstan faces, Nazarbayev has provided the country with a promising long-term vision.”
He added: “Given the geographical location of Kazakhstan, the nature of its neighbours, its natural resources and the composition of its population, the EU is committed to support the preservation of stability, including economic stability, at both internal and regional level.”
The official also points to “Kazakhstan 2050”, the ambitious strategy launched in 2012 which seeks to haul the country into the top 30 most developed nations on the planet by mid-century.
Just as important, its successes in the business environment had also improved the image of the country in the international arena. Labour costs in the country are low, a likely attraction for would-be investors, with a vast territory with a flight time from most European destinations of just five hours.
But, says the KazNex Invest analysis, there areas for future improvement.
It points, for example, to the multiple factory buildings with tens of thousands square meters which are currently available for free for possible investment projects. In addition, local textile producers supply only 8% of the market and domestic production of footwear satisfies only 1% of overall demand.
Even so, these are boom times for the country and, with major projects such as a new passenger terminal at Astana International Airport, the country remains firmly on track to meet those Kazakhstan 2050 targets.