MARKETS brought Eugenia Pesci to mid-pandemic Helsinki

14.5.2021
Spring is the perfect time to arrive in Helsinki even in a pandemic year such as 2021. Even if you have to self-quarantine for two weeks, you can still admire the awakening nature all around you. But if you are a PhD student arriving to work in a new project, how do you continue from there?

Since 2020, the Aleksanteri Institute has participated in an European Commission, H2020-Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions-funded project with the awe-inspiring title of “Mapping Uncertainties, Challenges and Future Opportunities of Emerging Markets: Informal Barriers, Business Environments and Future Trends in Eastern Europe, The Caucasus and Central Asia” (MARKETS).  One of the aims of the MARKETS project is to fill up a gap in academic expertise by building a network of young scholars specialized in the emerging markets of the post-Soviet space. So, in late 2020, altogether 15 PhD students were recruited to conduct research in the framework of the project. They are scattered in nine universities all over Europe and over different disciplines.

Eugenia Pesci applied for an early stage researcher position and decided to do her PhD in Helsinki.

Welcome to… Zoom?

Pesci, who has her roots in Italy, knew very little about Helsinki: she had visited the city on a daytrip from St. Petersburg once. She was, however, well aware of the Russian studies at the University of Helsinki and especially of the Aleksanteri Institute research community and eager to establish connections in the Finnish academic circles. But how do you begin to find your place in a research community when there is no physical community to speak of?

— Relocations abroad are never fun, and especially not in the middle of a global pandemic. Because of Covid-19, arranging for in-person appointments at public offices can take weeks. Overall, people here have been very friendly and helpful, especially at the University but workwise, I really miss all the informal meetings that facilitate the flow of ideas and information and make the work much easier, Pesci describes.

During the remote work period, it has become painfully clear how crucial role the interactions with peers and professors play for a young scholar’s work. Online meetings are effective, but spontaneous conversations at the coffee machine might be where you actually end up knowing of an interesting article or an upcoming conference, and that informal moment in the seminar room before or after a joint event is where you get introduced to a colleague of whom you never heard of, but who shares your special interest. 

Strategies of “getting things done”

Eurasian studies is a field that has been steadily growing since the early 2000’s in Helsinki, so when the pandemic subsides, there will be a community of eight scholars whose work relates closely to that of Pesci’s. And what, exactly, is that work about? The rest of this article tries to make sense of just that.

Emerging markets in the post-socialist Eurasian countries could be a remarkable factor in global economy, but there are a lot of questions waiting to be answered before foreign investments and development projects driven by international organizations and donors in many post-Soviet countries can be truly  successful.

The project is mapping the ambivalence of informality in different sets of practices, behaviours and norms.

According to Eugenia Pesci, one of the key issue is understanding the role of informal processes in all spheres: in the economy, in governance, in the social sector, including people’s everyday strategies of “getting things done”.

— Defining informality is very challenging as it is often used as an umbrella concept. In some cases it is difficult to understand what is formal and what is informal – and, even more crucially, when does it become not just informal but corrupt, illegal, or illicit. The project is mapping the ambivalence of informality in different sets of practices, behaviours and norms. It’s evident on micro and macro levels, from informal governance to forms of social solidarity among migrants and women entrepreneurs, or the diffused practice of out-of-pocket payments in public education and healthcare, Pesci explains.

The MARKETS project seeks to give a comprehensive picture of the various forms of “informalities” in the post-Soviet space.  Some subprojects focus on entrepreneurship; others on social solidarity and trust networks from a gender perspective; some PhD students study informality in healthcare or informal employment in Central Asian bazars, and so on.  

— Eventually, by the end of the project we will have an exhaustive “map” of informality in the post-Soviet space that hopefully will encourage further research and can be useful for governmental and non-governmental organisations, international donors, as well as private investors interested in this region, hopes Pesci.

Area studies thrive on mobility, both in fieldwork and academic networking

MARKETS is planned to continue until the end of 2024. The pandemic will hopefully be long gone by then, as an essential part of the project is to enhance the mobility of the early stage scholars and to provide training and learning opportunities at associate institutions in the region and beyond. No one country or university has the possibility to provide all the missing pieces.

Eugenia Pesci has already travelled quite extensively during her studies before landing in Helsinki. She completed her bachelor in foreign languages and did her Master’s degree in MIREES, Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe, and had the opportunity to study for entire semesters in Russia, first in Chelyabinsk and Moscow and then in Saint Petersburg. After graduating, she started working for Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Spending time in post-Socialist societies made Pesci realize how little we understand about how these societies function beyond the formal rules and institutions.

— I had the chance to get to know people in these countries, and hear their stories about “how things work here”, about life in the Soviet times and in the 90’s, and I had the chance to observe the many ways people make use of their connections to have better services or to solve personal and work issues more quickly.

Spending time in post-Socialist societies made Pesci realize how little we understand about how these societies function beyond the formal rules and institutions. Her PhD research will focus on social policy implementation at the local level and on how policy practices and informal norms become institutionalized in welfare.

— The idea is to conduct research in small towns in three countries of the former Soviet Union – Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, and study the work of local administrations and social sector workers in providing welfare to local communities. Much has been written about the role of the post-Soviet legacies in the development of institutions in these countries, but I think it is also important to consider the local transformations that have been going on over the past thirty years, Pesci explains.

So, despite of the slightly intimidating name of the project, “Mapping Uncertainties, Challenges and Future Opportunities of Emerging Markets: Informal Barriers, Business Environments and Future Trends in Eastern Europe, The Caucasus and Central Asia”, it is actually very much about understanding the everyday life and livelihood of local people in countries with emerging markets. This comprehensive grassroots knowledge of informal institutions is essential for building successful international collaboration in business and beyond.