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Central Asian countries see innovation as key to sustainable development in the wake of COVID-19

The economic downturn due to COVID-19 will hit the countries of the UN Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA) – Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – hard and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. As a region highly reliant on a limited set of commodity exports, declining prices and overall demand have made a substantial dent in export revenue. The downturn in the Russian Federation, where many citizens work, has undercut the flow of remittances – an important source of revenue for many families in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – making up to almost 30% of GDP in these economies, according to the World Bank. Coupled with the rapid fall in output in certain service sectors as a result of lockdown measures, GDP is expected to decline substantially – disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable segments of society.


Moving away from a resource-intensive model of economic growth that is vulnerable to external shocks and price fluctuations requires more systematic innovation, or experimentation with new ideas, to uncover activities that could be the foundation for long-term, inclusive sustainable development. Recognizing this challenge, SPECA countries have put innovation high on their policy agenda and, in 2019 launched the SPECA Innovation Strategy for Sustainable Development.


To help countries put the strategy into practice through the SPECA Working Group on Innovation and Technology for Sustainable Development, UNECE and UN-ESCAP launched the project on Strengthening innovation policies for SPECA countries in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development financed by the United Nations Development Account (UNDA). A central first milestone is the new UNECE Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) gap assessment of SPECA countries, presented to and discussed with the seven SPECA countries during virtual meeting on 26 November 2020. The assessment called for:


  • Addressing challenges in innovation governance by building institutional capacities to design, pilot, roll out, and monitor STI policies;

  • Developing flexible, transparent, cost-effective policy processes;

  • Expanding the portfolio of mechanisms to support innovation and putting in place the right incentives for innovation, including by building a robust network of innovation support institutions.

The webinar also featured a discussion on business incubators to support innovative entrepreneurship. The discussions were based on the draft UNECE Handbook on Incubators to promote innovation for sustainable development in the SPECA sub-region, forthcoming in 2021, which will provide a step-by-step guide on establishing and running an effective incubator.  


During the webinar, several potential areas for further regional cooperation for sustainable development emerged, including enhancing innovation ecosystems, boosting trade flows, improving digital and physical connectivity, transitioning to a circular economy, and building smart and sustainable cities that could serve as hubs of innovation. UNECE and ESCAP support SPECA countries in these areas, including through the SPECA Working Group on Trade.


Further information about the webinar, including speakers’ presentations, can be found at: http://www.unece.org/index.php?id=55545.

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