USAID Mission Director: We want to see a strong economic partnership between US and Azerbaijan - INTERVIEW

© Report/ Firi Salim

Baku. 8 November. REPORT.AZ/ Interview of Report News Agency with USAID Mission Director to Azerbaijan Jay Singh.

- How can you assess the current partnership between Azerbaijani government and USAID?

We have been a friend of Azerbaijan since Azerbaijan became an independent country and enjoy a very strong partnership with Azerbaijan. We have invested and continue to invest in this friendship, which is very important to us.

We want to work with Azerbaijan to get U.S. companies to invest here. The Azerbaijani government is committed to reforms from the energy sector to the non-energy sector. And as long as these reforms keep moving, it gives us more confidence to move forward and encourage U.S. companies to invest here and vice-versa. We would like to see Azerbaijani companies investing in the U.S. as well.

- What is the main aim of USAID in Azerbaijan?

Initially, we invested in and focused on economic development and the country's new institutions. With the maturing of our relationship, the key goal of our mission is to work with Azerbaijan to diversify its economy. There is nothing like mutually shared goals of prosperity to bring our countries together sustainably. These economic ties help building our enduring friendship.

Azerbaijan has so much potential. The interesting thing is that Azerbaijan is a relatively new country, although it has a long, ancient history. In terms of democracy and institutions, it is fairly young–just over 25 years old. So, there is a lot of creativity here, and we want to harness that.

- Which areas are most attractive and perspective for cooperation?

There is a lot of potential in agriculture. Hazelnuts have taken off as the second largest agricultural export. Pomegranate productions another area with potential. But we would like to look deeper than that. We would like to see Azerbaijan be a regional leader in terms of plastics, recycling, and renewable energy – wind and solar is plentiful here. I think Azerbaijan can be the Caucasus leader in these sectors and be a gross exporter to the EU and other countries in terms of energy products as well as food products.

Azerbaijan is a middle-income country. If you look at the resources and the wealth in Azerbaijan, it is actually fairly large. We want to make sure that we co-develop with Azerbaijan. Our assistance to Azerbaijan should be seen as an investment.We would like to offer assistance in terms of helping with Azerbaijan’s new institutions as they develop. What I want to do is bring more private sector capital into Azerbaijan.If we can do that, then our countries will become much closer.We want to invest. That is why we are here.

One thing that we are looking at is if we can enhance tourism here. I think there is a lot to do here in terms of getting to know the culture and the country. There are some issues that we need to deal with in terms of making the business climate more attractive.That is the goalof our cooperation – breaking down the investment barriers.

- Does USAID plan any new development programs in Azerbaijan?

We are looking at partnering more closely with the Ministries of Energy, Economy, and Agriculture. We are also working with local private enterprises here. We are not looking at it from an assistance perspective but rather from a co-investment perspective. Azerbaijan is not a poor country – itis a country with a lot of potential and resources. So, we are looking at it as a co-journey. We want to co-invest and grow with the Azerbaijani government and the people.

For example, our collaboration with the Ministry of Economy on the Socio-Economic Development Activity (SEDA) has helped 146 communities across Azerbaijan – hometo over 200,000 people – tocomplete over 123 socio-economic projects. These projects include community medical points, animal feed processing facilities and even a cheese processing plant. From 2011 to 2017, the Azerbaijani government and USAID co-financed SEDA by providing $7.2 million each. The project was extended with an additional $3 million from USAID until September 2019.

We are also partnering with the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection and United Nations Development Program --UNDP-- on regional Syslab centers that train youth in employment and entrepreneurship skills and the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs and UNDP on Women’s Resource Centers that provide training and investment for women entrepreneurs in Masalli and Zaqatala.

USAID also helped to facilitate a $700,000 agreement between Texas A&M University, a leading U.S. agricultural research institution, and AgroCenter to build the efficiency and growth of Azerbaijan’s cotton industry with tailored scientific approaches.

- As a new mission director what steps can you take to increase this partnership?

After 25 years, we have come to the point where we want to revisit what we have done so far. I think we have a very good collaboration with the government [of Azerbaijan]. Look at the recent visits we have had from U.S. dignitaries here,there is a lot of interest in partnering with Azerbaijan both from a security perspective as well as an economic growth perspective. I think there is a lot more what we can do. For example, the cooperation with the Azerbaijani government in terms of rural infrastructure [SEDA] is a key aspect of our partnership.

- Can sanctions against Iran have a negative impact on the Azerbaijan - USAID partnership?

Our focus is to make Azerbaijan a strong economic partner in the region, so that it can withstand those types of sanctions that go against Iran, given that Iran is a major partner and neighbor of Azerbaijan. We want to maintain Azerbaijan’s economy as a key leader in the Caucasus.

It [Azerbaijan] is a very close partner of ours. We want to maintain that partnership and nurture it. We will do our best to enhance our relationship to support Azerbaijan’s economic resilience and growth.

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