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Academic Acrimony – Ukraine

June 15, 2015

Aside from fairly frequent high-brow meetings with diplomats from those nations that are active (rather than simply in) Ukraine, this blog gets to meet visiting/researching academia, think tankers, NGOs and  journalists, somewhat ad hoc when they are passing through Odessa and make contact wanting a chat.

The dividing line these days between academia, think tanks and certain NGOs becomes ever increasing smudged and blurry.  Your author’s genuine academic heroes, such as Sir Lawrence Freedman, become more and more difficult to find in an environment where publish or perish of acquired knowledge (of which we are all capable) has replaced scholarly thinking and subsequent wisdom and sublime insight (of which we are not all capable).

One of the benefits of blogging about Ukrainian and regional policy (and politics) in English from the provinces such as Odessa, is that the “regional view” is read and actively sought out when the enlightened pass through.  Rightly, any excuse to get out of the “Kyiv bubble” is taken – if only the senior Ukrainian politicians did the same.

Over the past 48 hours, Professors from Moscow, Carnegie Moscow, Yale researchers and think tankers/NGOs from Kyiv have all, in various ways and to various degrees, emptied you author’s head over good food and in pleasant surroundings.

There is a certain amount of sympathy for researchers.  The boys and girls of the academic boiler room that make Doctors and Professors look good, but who are generally nothing more than a footnote on a published work and thus almost invisible when said Doctor’s or Professor’s published work is cited elsewhere.  That said, being an “intern” is even worse.

From here on in, The Chatham House Rule applies.

One of the issues that raised its head with some of the enlightened, amongst the numerous issues discussed and which may well be visited in later entries, was that of academic acrimony.

A current case in point – USAID has financed several Kyiv based NGOs that will remain nameless, to tackle the issue of SMEs, existing and future government policy, bureaucratic hurdles, (the complete lack of) DCFTA/EU regulation awareness, certification requirements and sources for certification etc., and delivering some long hanging policy fruit that can be dealt with swiftly, as well as a more strategic policy paper.

Rather than finance the 3 NGOs to work separately, USAID stated it would source a collaborative effort.  Thus former NGO and think tank/academic rivals become current NGO and think tank/academic partners – not necessarily to the benefit of the subject matter.  Funding trumps all history and current notions of competitiveness and adversary.

Part of academia is to put reasoned, thoughtful ideas and suggestion “out there” for peer review and comment – and if not unnecessarily heavily cloaked in discipline specific jargon, the hoi polloi will understand it too (God forbid).

(It has to be said academic writing is tedious.  Journalistic writing is generally dull.  Hopefully regular readers of this blog will class the writing here as “conversational”.  After all, are you not regularly offered dilemmas and questions to think about, rather than simply being given answers to prickly problems?)

Naturally for any given academic view, there is often an alternative academic view, and occasionally what has been put “out there” is taken to the next level by others.  On rare occasions, take the Keynes verses Hyatt discourse in The Times many moons ago, it can become somewhat publicly acrimonious.  Indeed contesting the content can be replaced with attacking the author.   It pays to separate message from messenger in most walks of life – and academia is no different.

Anyway, six months into the current USAID funded project – and having eventually reached consensus over the “what” of the study (and the “what” is always harder to define than the “who”, “when”, “where”, “why” and “how”) field work is underway in five randomly(ish) picked Oblasts.

For a few swift results as required by the USAID funder, that low hanging fruit will have to be very low hanging indeed – tick tock, tick tock, six months have passed already!

Yet for there to be a coherent consensus driven outcome, a coherent consensus driven input is required.  And there are issues already, despite so little having been done thus far.

At the end of December 2014, the Rada passed a law that stated business and SMEs were to use electronic tills that produce receipts for customers – Shock!  Horror!  An attempt to drag some of the grey economy into the white?

These tills cost approximately UAH 5000 each.  For many businesses and SMEs not a major outlay – for others problematic.

The Ukrainian Business Associations were rightly miffed that they were not consulted about this law before it was passed, even if the government policy of mandatory introduction was unlikely to change by any SME/Business Association input.

It was indeed bad form by the government not to consult, or at least be seen to consult, the business and SME organisations whether it had any intent to actually listen or not.

Indeed, there is not really that much objection to the introduction of the tills amongst the business and SME community – the contentious issue is who is to pay for these tills?

How dare the Rada pass an arbitrary law that costs SMEs and business money?  If they insist business and SMEs use such tills, then the government should pay for them.

That the government also has a mandatory requirement that all nationals have an internal passport that the individual pays for and that the government does not, is besides the point.  That every driver pays for their driving license because the government states you must have one to drive, again is besides the point.  Because the government has made it mandatory to have electronic receipt giving tills for customers (and tax officials) this is something the government should pay for – unlike internal passports or driving licenses it also insists upon, and people pay for.

Perhaps if the government pass a law that snow tyres must be on all vehicles when the snow is deeper than “x” and temperatures lower than “y” on the grounds of public safety/saving lives, the government should pay for snow tyres on every mechanically propelled motor vehicle that uses a public highway in Ukraine?

When these Ukrainian businesses and SMEs begin trading with the EU and have to meet the EU standards, perhaps the EU should pay for these businesses and SMEs to reach those standards to be able to trade within the EU?  If a new standard is introduced the EU should pay for Ukrainian businesses to reach it – even if they don’t pay for EU businesses to reach it?  EU standards are arbitrarily imposed and cost money to meet!

For any new SMEs starting up, this new law is simply part of the start-up costs and budgeted for accordingly.  For those existing this law is onerous and thus outrageous.

Whatever the case, the law is the law.  How effective it will be at dragging part of the grey economy into the white, or indeed reinforcing customer rights, remains to be seen.  After all, electronic till or not, it does not mean all transactions are going to go through the till.  Alternatively when the little corrupt tax inspector arrives and in their opinion not enough tax has been paid, evidence of sales and tax liability based on electronic till receipts and not the corrupt tax inspectors best guess and whim have some evidential value to the SME being squeezed.

Unsurprisingly (or perhaps not), there is now a fracture between the collaborating NGOs over whether the government or private business/SMEs should shoulder the costs of the arbitrary government decision.  Apparently it is an on-going argument over several months amongst what is supposedly an erudite and enlightened group of people tasked with far larger issues by USAID, relevant as this may be.

Seemingly the ability to agree to disagree and create a research/policy recommendation document that can contains either/or variations on such an issue and move on, is beyond contemplation.  Suggesting a compromise of business/SME’s paying and then getting a tax break to cover it over a period of “x” years is not an option for consideration.  Alternatively, suggesting that if government pay it is in the full knowledge that the government will either raise or introduce a tax to cover the costs – and undoubtedly that tax will remain long after those costs have been covered, is not how these things can be framed.  Heaven forbid that a deal is struck that SMEs and business pay for the tills yet other regulatory issues that have to be tackled by government are delayed long enough to recoup the UAH 5000 outlay before more inevitable changes occur – be those changes recommended by the collaborative USAID funded research or not.

There is often much to be gained by academic collaboration, and there can equally be much lost.  The wisdom is found in forming the right collaborative agencies – and that is rarely done when funding for all concerned parties overrides compatibility and/or maturity.  When that academic line becomes blurred in the muddier waters of think tanks, NGOs and funders desired outcomes, friction will occur.

If the collaboration is allowed to become fractious, competitive and positions entrenched, USAID would have been far wiser either finding more compatible partners, or funding 3 separate research programmes and drawing their conclusions from each upon their own merits

Hopefully the 3 NGOs will get a grip.  Six months to decide upon the “what”, to and then immediately get hung up on a single conflicted issue in such a broad and important research effort is not particularly promising when it is not especially difficult to arrive at several valid paths for consideration and sets of recommendations for each.  .

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