Friday, October 12, 2012

Passport Series: Azerbaijan, a country too often overlooked

This month's Passport Series will focus on Azerbaijan. We'll take a close look at the country this week, and follow up with a deep dive into its microfinance sector next week. Stay tuned this month for more updates and a special lender story. Also, consider making a loan to a borrower in Azerbaijan. This unique country is home to thousands who could benefit from microfinance, but who are too often overlooked -- even on Kiva.

The Republic of Azerbaijan is located in the South Caucuses region of Eurasia and is bordered by Georgia, Iran, Armenia, Turkey and Russia. It's actually the largest country in the South Caucuses region, covering 86,600 square kilometers -- the same size as North Carolina.

Azerbaijan provides a unique window into the Middle East.

The Republic of Azerbaijan has a diverse and rich population, history and economy. And the Azerbaijani borrowers listed on Kiva are just as varied and interesting.

The people

The Republic of Azerbaijan has a total population of 9.5 million citizens, with 7.8% of the population living below the poverty line. Baku is the capital and largest city with 1.9 million persons, and the official language is Azeri. A staggering 99% of Azerbaijan’s population is Muslim, with the majority counting themselves as Shia. This represents the highest concentration of Shia Muslims outside of Iran; but much unlike that neighbor, most are secular Muslims.

The history

Since 1988, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in battle over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The majority of the region's inhabitants are Armenian Christians. Accordingly, in 1988, war broke out when Nagorno-Karabakh tried to annex itself to Armenia.

Before a cease-fire agreement was reached in 1994, 70,000 people perished. The cease-fire dictated that Armenia regain its hold over the disputed territory. Today, 700,000 people are still displaced by the Nagorno‐Karabach conflict. Many live in inadequate conditions and continue to suffer from health and psychological effects stemming from the war.

Many microfinance borrowers, including some on Kiva, are part of the displaced population who have limited earning potential due to instability and scarce financial services.

The ghost town of Agdam in Nagorno-Karabakh, post-conflict.

The economy

Azerbaijan is an oil‐rich nation with high economic growth. In fact, it's considered one of the most important spots in the world for oil exploration and development. The country's GDP is $52.17 billion and per capita GDP is $10,033.

That said, Azerbaijan still has a high poverty rate, particularly in rural areas. 48% of its population is rural, and roughly one-third of this segment falls below the official poverty line.

Since the conflict with Armenia, tourism has taken a heavy hit and is not a source of capital for the country. And because the once-thriving sturgeon fishing industry has shrunk as a result of dwindling stocks, agriculture and livestock still constitute a major part of livelihoods outside of the capital of Baku.

Later on in this blog series, you'll meet some of these rural people who are accessing loans for the first time in their lives through Kiva. Up next: A look into Azerbaijan's microfinance sector.

Again, please consider supporting an Azerbaijani borrower on Kiva. When it comes to making an impact with your loans, there are few places where your funds could go further. Have questions? Send them our way at

Images provided by CIA Factbook and National Geographic.