Armenia’s development as a post-Soviet republic is not unique, nor is it exactly like any other country’s process. Armenians have their own story, most recently laced with painful episodes of genocide, natural disaster and war. For much of the last 21 years since regaining independence, Counterpart International, a global non-profit development organization working in more than two dozen countries, has been in Armenia working on a variety of projects with funding from the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as well as other bilateral and private donors, including the Norwegian Government, UNDP and the Black Sea Trust.
Asbarez sat down with Alex Sardar, the organization’s outgoing country director for more than eight years to find out what he and his team have learned in Armenia, and why we should consider those lessons compelling.
Asbarez: Counterpart is involved in a variety of things in Armenia. Tell us what binds all this work together.
Alex Sardar: Our work in Armenia began well over a decade ago with humanitarian assistance programs in direct response to continuing crises in the aftermath of tragic earthquake in Spitak and of course, the Karabakh war. Eight years ago, with support of USAID we made a shift in our work, and began addressing long-term development priorities as part of our civil society and community development projects. In other words while we continued assisting Armenia with humanitarian commodities, we very intentionally began working on developing skills and institutions that would be able to create long-term solutions for Armenia’s development objectives. And this really brings us to the common denominator of the variety of activities. If you strip away the color, bells, and whistles of every single activity, you’ll find that we build everything we do around the very important premise of citizens engaging with their community organizations, including governance organizations, non-profits, educational, PTAs etc., to identify challenges, and to create consensus around solutions. In other words, citizens taking ownership of their own answers in development. When we talk about this, people usually respond with an ‘of course, that makes sense’ but you would be surprised how often in the cycle of project management this very simple equation gets short changed, and so we’ve made it our mission both in our country program in Armenia, but also institutionally that we never discount the value and staying power that equation delivers in our work.
And let me add that at the heart of that equation lies the very concept of partnership, because at the end of the day if we don’t truly partner with those very communities and those other donors and interested stakeholders, then we have no business here.
Asbarez: OK, we understand that theoretically this works. Give us examples of how it works in real terms on the ground.
A.S. : To give you a sense of how it works in everything we do, allow me to first offer a quick overview of the kinds of projects we’re involved with at the moment. On the macro reform level we’re partnering with the Ministry of Territorial Administration to facilitate the development of a strategic document on local government strengthening, meaning making municipal services responsive to and effective for citizens, with greater autonomy for municipal leaders; and with the Ministry of Justice we’ve just launched an ambitious effort to overhaul Armenia’s non-profit sector legislation. This effort is essential to the third sector being viable and sustainable. On the community level we work with municipal authorities in 43 communities in all Marzes, non-profit organizations and informal CBOs—mostly youth groups—to building capacity in anything from community organizing to advocacy to community development efforts.
If we take the decentralization policy document as an example, while it would be easier for us to devise the reform legislation or initiative and lobby directly with the executive branch to move it forward—certainly faster and much cleaner in terms of the project cycle—we instead chose to do it slightly differently. First, we brought together a coalition of think tanks that have over the years worked on various elements of governance reform, facilitated their coalition with financial resources for the activities, and worked with them and the government to develop a well-vetted and solid document on decentralization objectives. At the same time, we worked with the municipal government representatives in our partner communities to generate discussion, ideas and debate on the proposals in the strategic document. Along with that, under the leadership of the ministry the document has now been put into circulation for greater discussion, and the coalition of organizations that have been working on it are together advocating for the same principles, representing certain compromises but certainly consensus ideas.
So, while at the policy level we work on strong rooted legislation, we continue to work at various levels of society to ignite and strengthen a participatory culture that strengthens institutions.
This had never been done before. It took us close to two years to get to the point of moving this national policy document, which is one of Armenia’s international obligations under the Council of Europe’s Charter on Local Self-Governance, to this stage, but we’re confident that it has been a process that’s been built on smart foundation.
Asbarez: Decentralization is no doubt an important and long-term reform item. What are some of the more focused activities you undertake, and how do you apply your approach to those cases?
A.S.: Well, it’s important to remember that everything we do is part of a unified approach. In other words, if we’re doing decentralization work at the national level, then we incubate some of the new approaches and hypotheses in that reform proposal on the community level to make sure that the ideas are grounded in the realities of Armenia’s own development trajectory. If we’re talking about non-profit sustainability and accountability, then with every grant that we provide for to an NGO to conduct an activity, we make sure that the right systems and levels of reporting and accountability is in place. But more importantly, each grant has a built in capacity building mechanism, whether in the form of supply-driven trainings on transparency, strategic management, project cycle oversight, or on more thematic issues such as legislative process advocacy, communication and so on.
With that in mind, at the community level we’ve been testing out a number of very successful approaches. For the community development portion of our portfolio—which in plain spoken English means, creating the necessary conditions for people to live and work with dignity in their own communities, as opposed to emigrating to other countries or moving to large cities and leaving what amounts to Armenia’s lifeline communities—whether in terms of the national breadbasket or security on the borders. Let me give you some numbers to give you the magnitude of activity–in the 58 communities where we work, in the course of the last 15 months, we’ve initiated and completed 75 infrastructure projects and community programs. This has been done through voluntary efforts of the communities themselves. These projects have included renovation of kindergartens, heating systems in schools and arts centers, library and community center structures, street lighting systems, youth and senior citizen centers, and public park and recreation areas. Programs have included environment-focused campaigns on trash collection, healthy lifestyle activities, computer literacy activities, water sanitation and management campaigns etc.
The process began for us through a string of town hall meetings in the target communities, stretching from border to border, and covering every Marz. We’re in places as remote as Meghri, or as close as Koti (in Northeaster Tavush, a stone’s throw away from the border with Azerbaijan). I say it with pride that it took very little work on our behalf to mobilize more than 6000 Armenian citizens in these communities to create community working groups (CWGs). These CWGs are very much like community development boards in the United States. We’ve have a retention rate of more than 10% of those citizens—more than 600 are permanently engaged in the process. That means, without a financial incentive and with very little financial investment on our behalf, we’ve found anywhere from 8-10 citizens in each of these communities to volunteer their time to plan, communicate, oversee, and fundraise for projects that are of concern and import to the entire community. Now, I have to remind you that we work in communities with 200-500 inhabitants. 10 people can make a huge difference. In the larger cities like Kapan or Vanadzor, we’ve approached the process the same way but on a neighborhood level. We’ve had remarkable partnerships from municipal leaders, and we’ve been inspired by women and young people in these communities. The grant investment that we’ve made into these projects has been just under $1 million. But what has made us take note and truly appreciate the commitment of Armenia’s communities is that they have fundraised more than 60% on top of that amount from their budgets, from private sources and from the business sector.
Here’s another number for you—our projects have touched on the lives of more than 410,000 Armenians. If we take a step back and do the math, I hope you’ll agree with me that it doesn’t take a lot for Armenians to set their own agenda for their own communities, and then drive it forward. They simply look for some know-how and a bit of learning in the process, and it all comes together.
I constantly cite one community when I talk about Armenia’s successes. Aragatsavan, located in the Aragatsotn province in Armenia has not had access to clean water for two decades. The community’s water reservoir, a holdover from the Soviet Union, held the community’s daily allocation of 200 tons of water; leaks in the reservoir, however, were resulting in a loss of over 70 tons of water a day and contaminating the remaining reserve. As a result, the CWG assisted by municipal officials and community organizations applied for partial funding to urgently fix the reservoir, only after they had gone through the community prioritization process. The community spearheaded the renovation of the water reservoir, installed a new pumping station and shared 56% of the total project cost. Nearly 20 years of a broken system was solved in two and a half months. Today, all 5,600 residents of Aragatsavan have access to clean drinking water. That’s around $20,000 of investment, and invaluable amounts of commitment and political will.
There are many more examples on our sites www.counterpart.am or www.counterpart.org. Anyone can get involved through tools to donate, to keep up on ongoing projects or to provide feedback on how we may do things better. We’re also very active on our Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/CounterpartAM
Asbarez: What’s your sense of where Armenia’s headed at 21?
A.S.: The work of our team here has taught me two very important things: there is an opportunity around every corner in Armenia. If organizations and individuals are serious about getting involved, then there is no question that they will see the impact of their efforts. But the biggest thing to remember is that the reason why we’ve been able to be successful at most of our initiatives is our ability to really allow Armenians to drive their own agenda—we simply play a role in facilitating process, offering knowledge and comparative experience and a some financial resource. The second lesson is that building organizations, nurturing process, and building capacity is the only way that Counterpart has been able to make a dent into the most pressing priorities in this country—and in so doing, we’ve built partnerships that will outlast any project cycle or donor funding. These are linkages that will go on for a long time.
Much like the partnerships we’ve built, Armenians and may I also suggest Diasporans need to view their engagement with one another as a partnership of equals. This is where Armenia’s secret to prosperity lies. If that collaboration is unlocked, the successes ahead are limitless.