Three innovative countries Armenia can learn from

Here are three countries I’ve had my eyes set on for some time now, and which I see as a source of inspiration for Armenia, in becoming the Silicon Valley of the South Caucasus it aspires to be. The countries I have chosen are Estonia, Israel and Singapore.

I will first introduce the countries and explain why they’re on my list and then I’ll propose policies to achieve the results these countries have achieved.

What Armenia can learn from Estonia

Both Estonia and Armenia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet 30 years later, the former is known worldwide as a tech-hub, the Silicon Valley of Europe, where disadvantages such as a small population, Soviet infrastructure and the subsequent remnants of Soviet institutions did not stop this country from innovating. Thanks to a smart and determined population, coupled with competent politicians, Estonia began looking for a viable sector to invest in. Soon enough, it chose to invest in technology.

By 1998, every school in the country had internet access, and 2 years later (or 20 years ago!), Estonia declared internet access as a human right — if this is not epic, then I don’t know what is ! The Government made it a priority for every citizen to have free internet access.

Knowledge is key, and Estonia knows this very well, because research and innovation have become state policy. Estonia aspires to go towards a knowledge-based economy for an advanced, developed and sustainable society.

E-Estonia is the name of the government’s e-services; since 2002, Estonians gained access to a number of online services from the government with their new ID cards. This endeavor continued with what is called ‘e-voting’; in 2007, Estonia was the first country to use this system in a general election.

The country’s determination to invest in the little it has made small Estonia a model to follow.

What Armenia can learn from Israel

Israel, surrounded by enemies on all sides, and in a constant state of war, has been at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, Israel is a success story in its resilience and determination to survive. The country spends the most amount per capita on research and development. This economic boom has been fueled by no other than innovation and technology. Second only to the US, Israel has more high–tech firms listed on the NASDAQ than any other country.

Chutzpah. This is ultimately my favorite (or second favorite) Yiddish word; it has no English equivalent. It’s an adjective used for Israelis (or Israeli work ethic) and roughly means: stubborn, resilient, determined, unconventional, unorthodox, straight-forward and innovative, all at once !

In the 1970s, the Israeli Government decided to transform the country’s economy into a research and innovation-based industry. Thanks to such government policies throughout the years and the determination of Israeli society, Israel is now dubbed the “Start-up nation”, and is acclaimed worldwide for it’s advances in human development, against all odds.

Before the Six Day War of 1967, France supplied Israel with weapons. Citing the war, France decided to impose an arms embargo on the country. Israel needed alternatives, and it needed them fast; thus, Israel saw an increase in awareness of the need for local expertise in technology. The country, therefore, expanded its aerospace industry and had its military contribute to innovation. It is important to note that similar to Armenia, Israel imposes a strict compulsory military service for all abled men, but unlike Armenia, also women. Unlike Armenia, Israel has the financial backing of the United States (most notably) and hence, has the financial resources to carry out such military innovation.

Israel is the Silicon Valley of the Middle East with no doubt, but it is its strong links with the US that contributes immensely to the development of the entrepreneurial endeavors of innovative Israeli start-ups. IBM, Google and Intel have research centers in the country due to the strong links it has with (the traditional) Silicon Valley. Israel also invests more per capita in Venture Capital (VC) than any other country — but that’s also, to some extent, thanks to US-funds which fund Israeli start-ups.

Israel’s law of return and welcoming immigration policies for the Jewish diaspora, is one that Armenia has been implementing only recently. The Armenian diaspora is one of Armenia’s strengths and it must create a welcoming atmosphere for them to actually move to the country, rather than just hold Armenian passports and stay in the diaspora.

What Armenia can learn from Singapore

Business-friendly Singapore with its entrepreneurial spirit and strong governance has turned this small and unimportant island into a success story.

Singapore aimed from the beginning to attract foreign investments — and talent. The government implemented an aggressive policy of opening-up to immigration and saw an influx of scientists, researchers, international students, and businessmen and women. The Singaporean education system is also known to be of high calibre. The healthcare system collaborates actively with scientists and academics to find innovative solutions in medicine and pharmaceuticals.

The main thing Armenia can learn from Singapore, aside from its entrepreneurial environment, is strong governance and the frameworks of its almost non-existent corruption.

Policy Recommendations

– With a national vision for the future, Armenia needs to develop a liberal and open economy, and establish the political will needed for such improvements; it should also create public awareness amongst the determined and resilient Armenian population.

– The breaking up of monopolies and oligarchies are vital for fair competition and investor-friendliness. This cannot take place without the infrastructure needed in the country and hence, the latter should be prioritized.

– Estonia’s efforts to give every citizen free access to the internet must be copied in Armenia. This is especially helpful in the development of education and the subsequent fight against unemployment.

– Armenia has a corruption problem, one which the current government is trying to fix, but not without putting up a fight. This needs firm leadership but also patience; maybe, Singapore and Armenia should collaborate with this regard.

– Armenia must follow Israel’s footsteps in bringing home the grand Armenian diaspora, and offer them opportunities to take part in the country’s liberalization process. Emigration is a major problem, but all of these policies must be done in parallel, to fight it. Safeguarding the human rights of women, children, minorities, LGBTQ and enshrine their equal rights in law is mandatory; only in safe and equal conditions can a person contribute to their full capabilities in innovative endeavors.

– I would like Armenia to create this Chutzpah culture, a fearless and bold society that invests in human capital through education, science, research and innovation. This can be supported through political institutions capable of fostering a link between academia, civil society, industry, technology and services. These institutions must be aware of the new trends in innovation and must participate in the investment of creating new ones.

– Straight after independence, land-locked Armenia went into an unfortunate bloody war with its neighbor, Azerbaijan, over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Subsequently, the latter closed its border with Armenia and its ally, Turkey, followed suit. Armenia might not have the same military backing Israel has from the US, but it sure does control the overall culture, mindset, politics and financial expenditure of the military. I propose expanding military service to include women, and have a civil service and community service option. It’s also better for the years of service to be decreased from two years to one. Armenia must enforce decent conditions for those in service, such as providing mental health provisions, which includes a suicide prevention scheme, for example. It should ensure those serving the country, a good quality of living, which includes healthy food, lots of exercise and combatting hazing. I also support the decreasing of post-service benefits.

In conclusion, Armenia will still have hurdles to deal with, such as the possibility of war with Azerbaijan, the fight against religious bigotry and nationalism, and creating the public awareness needed and exhibited in the 2018 Velvet Revolution, to implement these changes. There must be political will and a commitment to fighting corruption — not just empty talk. Hence with the right business, economic, legal and societal policies, it is possible for small countries such as Armenia to aim and fight for the goal of creating a prosperous nation. One which thrives through the innovation of its determined and skilled human capital and the will of its competent political leaders.

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