Concert for Armenian Independence Day. There was singing and dancing!
Last Friday September 21 was Armenia’s 21st anniversary of independence from the USSR. So I’d like to take this opportunity to do my part to bring awareness to civil society in Armenia and its role in the past 20 years in Armenia’s transition from Soviet-style government and economic system to democracy and a free market economy. This topic is what I conducted an independent study on the last months I was in Denver for my Master’s. But I’ll try to keep it brief here!
In 1991 Armenia’s independence was officially recognized as the Soviet Union collapsed. To understand more about the Armenian culture today, it is important to note that in 1988 a devastating earthquake occurred in Spitak, a village about 30 minutes to the west of Vanadzor. The earthquake leveled much of the surrounding villages and towns and killed at least 25,000 people. It is rare to hear from an Armenian in this area that they did not know anyone who lost someone in the earthquake. My current host mother’s brother lost his 14 year old daughter in the earthquake and was so devastated he left Armenia.
The earthquake can be seen as the start of the dark times in Armenia. The infrastructure crumpled and there was no gas or electricity, which threatened many peoples lives as the earthquake happened in December and the Armenian winters are harsh. Many countries including the US sent relief teams to help in recovery efforts. Three years later the Soviet Union fell, taking away the most stable aspect of the Armenian recovery. During Soviet times Armenia was a large manufacturing sector for the USSR. I have not been to a city, town or village yet that does not have remnants of Soviet-era factories that had provided plenty of jobs for Armenians. When the Soviet Union fell, Armenians were unable to support these manufacturing hubs themselves and jobs started disappearing.
Not only did Armenia face the same problems transitioning to democracy as many post-Soviet states (economic difficulties transitioning to a market economy, political instability, etc.), but also a violent political conflict erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over disputed territory called Nagorno-Karabakh. If the effects of the earthquake hadn’t reached the rest of Armenia, all Armenians felt the impact of the war. Country-wide resources were limited. My program manager who is only in his 30s remembers his mom standing in line all day to receive a tiny amount of bread to feed her entire family. In Vanadzor people went to the forest (which is what the north of the country is known for and very proud of) to cut down trees for fuel. The forest is still recovering. Another Volunteer in Vanadzor, Debra, is living with a host family in the apartment they acquired just after the earthquake. During these dark times her family burned all their furniture and later wood from the forest in their apartment to keep warm through the winters.
The conflict reached a cease-fire in 1994, around about the same time USAID started its development programs in Armenia. This is where civil society comes into play in Armenia. USAID’s strategy for democracy strengthening focuses in large part on civil society strengthening. Civil society is difficult to explain, but is most simply defined as the arena outside the family, state and market where people associate to advance common interests. Through much theoretical debate during the time of the “third-wave” of democratic transitions in Latin America and Eastern Europe, many western organizations linked civil society nearly exclusively with Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). This meant that in order to strengthen democracy in Armenia (and other countries), organizations such as USAID decided to start programs to assist NGOs, which were seen as the main actors in civil society.
So what does this mean for Armenia? As I’ve described above, the early 1990s were an economically challenging time for Armenia. When western organizations, including the USAID as a major actor, started giving money to these organizations that were a new concept to Armenians, NGO registration went through the roof. Quickly NGOs came to be seen as a family-business serving as the livelihood of families rather than truly growing from the demands of civil society for a formal way to advance the community’s common interests. Establishing NGOs came to be a survival mechanism for this country that had been devastated from the earthquake, Soviet collapse and a difficult war.
Though not all NGOs were started merely as a way to survive, Armenian NGOs became stereotyped as family-businesses rather than community-based organizations existing to serve the community. The ramifications are still seen in Armenia’s NGO sector today. Often NGOs are mistrusted, seen as corrupt or not well organized. This makes it difficult to find financing outside of applying for grants offered by international organizations. NGOs and non-profits in America to be considered public charities must demonstrate that at least one-third of its funding comes from the public. Any conversation I’ve had with Armenian NGO members usually immediately turns to the impossibility of relying on public support for financial sustainability.
Unfortunately this means that many small NGOs work from project to project, grant to grant and see financial sustainability as receiving a long-term grant. An NGO might find a grant to apply for, THEN develop a project to meet the grant requirements rather than develop a project that fits with the organization’s mission first THEN find a grant that matches the project. As you can guess, this leads to a lot of mismatch between a community’s needs and what activities the NGO actually pursues and also a problem with lack of focus. An NGO with a mission to promote human rights might undertake activities and projects relating to a completely different topic such as environmental issues.
Another impact of this is that many community members don’t actually know what NGOs exist for. If an NGO is created out of personal interest rather than a demand from what is often called “grass-roots movements,” the community will not be invested in the organization. So, coming back to Civil Society Day, it was a great joy for me to see how many people came out and learned about what NGOs existed in their community and what services they provided. Sure we could have had more organizations present and more people from a more diverse cross-section of the community, but you have to start somewhere, right?
I want to emphasize again that these views are mine, stemming from personal interest and research, and do not reflect the opinions of the US government, Peace Corps or any other US governmental agency. The views here also only paint a very general picture of the NGO sector in Armenia and by no means fully represents the complexity of the issues faced by NGOs in Armenia. I merely wanted to share with you, my family and friends, a little background on the country in which I am working and the work I am doing here.