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An oil windfall for Azerbaijan's schools

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"The main objective of the program is providing the economy with a highly skilled labor force that [has] a significant role in the non-oil sector," Abbas says. The program, he says, was designed after consultations from the UN Development Program as one of the best uses for oil revenues.

Balancing education with loyalty

But despite what would appear to be a push for educational reform, some critics point out that Azerbaijan's investment in education presents something of a paradox. In heavily autocratic former Soviet countries such as Turkmenistan, presidents typically held onto power by denying anything but the most rudimentary education, thereby cultivating an unquestioning public.

For soft autocracies like Azerbaijan, the challenge will be to modernize the country without losing its grip on power.

Azerbaijan may already have one instructive model in China.

"China is a controlled country but is sending people all over the world and investing abroad, says Karin Lissakers, director of the Revenue Watch Institute, a program that advises governments in resource-revenue management. "I think some [leaders] in the region look at the Chinese model and think, that's the way to go – maintain political control and still modernize the economy."

Globalizing Azeri classrooms

Others say that Azerbaijan's leadership knows that a failure to educate its workforce will not only alienate its citizens, but will leave the country in the dust in an increasingly globalizing economy.

"Azerbaijan's market economy is not getting what it needs from education," says Fariz Ismailzade, the new diplomatic academy's director of training. "People aren't equipped to apply for a job. They don't even know how to write a CV."

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