Monday, October 21, 2013

Management Training


It has been one hell of a first week -- and a fabulous one at that.

Monday and Tuesdays were Kurban Eid (more commonly known as Eid in the US) a traditional Muslim holiday. Official businesses were closed, which gave me an opportunity to sit down and catch up on some work, meet with old friends and new acquaintances and get a lay of the land. After all, one of the chief tasks, and challenges, of a field research is to understand the on-the-ground networks and dynamics. It helps that I've been here before, but things change.

The highlight of this week, by far, was a project management workshop I attended at the International Academy of Business (also known by its Russian-language acronym, MAB), which is one of my host affiliations. The workshop was for small business entrepreneurs and NGO leaders in Kazakhstan. While the material was not necessarily new, engaging in the group activities with the entrepreneurs gave me such valuable insights into their norms, values and the way they approach management and building a small business. There were also some funny cultural moments.

One woman owns a fertility clinic and pregnancy care center -- they coach moms from conception through delivery and beyond. She told me I should come to her business. I told her I am here only ten months and there is no plan for me to have a baby. "Could you imagine if I came home from Kazakhstan after ten months with a baby, what would my mother say?" I told her. She remarked, in all seriousness, "she would be delighted!" I had to contain myself from laughing.

During a group activity on organizing a project timeline for planning a conference, I commented that buying gifts for attendees was not a central activity. My table of Kazakhs remarked, "no, of course it is." Then we laughed, because only an American like myself would think gifts are a superfluous addition to a conference. My comrades then explained to me that you have to invite at least 500 people to a Kazakh wedding, and up to 50-80% of a budget could be spent on gifts (in a more traditional home).

As you know, I am a huge supporter of State Department exchange programs -- after all, I've had the good fortune to participate in three of them. The State Department also organizes programs for foreign citizens to visit the US. I was pleased to have met this week two Muskie Fellows, a librarian who participated on a month-long State Department exchange for librarians where they travelled throughout the US and learned about our library catalogue and electronic database systems, and finally a woman whose husband was a Fulbright scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. It is really, really hard to measure the impacts of these people-to-people programs -- it is not like measuring GDP or employment. But this was a pretty special group of people gathered this week and the fact that at least (or as far as I know) three of them engaged in U.S.-supported exchange programs and are now leaders in their respective communities and organizations, says quite a lot for the value of these programs.

The training ran through Saturday and on Sunday, I returned to Baraholka!! It was exciting --- but I will not overwhelm you with details now. But I will attach a picture of a plastic bag from Baraholka that features panda bears and the word "Rakhmet," which is Kazakh for thank you. On the bottom, the word "recycle" is also spelled incorrectly. In my opinion, this little plastic bag is a fabulous crystallization of Chinese economic influence in Central Asia.

I'm off to Khorgos this evening to attend a trade promotion fare at the Khorgos Free Trade Zone (FTZ). The Khorgos FTZ runs across the Kazakh-Chinese border and provides special benefits to individuals and companies transporting cargo across the border. I've toured the Panama Pacifico FTZ and Special Economic Zone and the Colon Free Trade Zone, both in Panama, and am really excited to see Khorgos. I've read quite a bit about it and the special visa regime that governs the area -- you do not need a Kazakh or Chinese visa to enter/exit the zone for a limited amount of time (I believe a day or three days -- I forgot exactly). I'm also excited to see how it compares to the Panamanian FTZs in terms of logistics coordination and freight forwarding capacities. Khorgos is much smaller, in terms of meterage, and it appears it does not offer the same diversified services as the other two zones such as banking/financial options, different options for owning and leasing warehouse space, etc., but these are extremely well developed ports in one of the most important trade intersections in the world. Either way, I'll learn more about Khorgos and will let you know!



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