BY RAFFI HAMPARIAN
Have you ever been to Fresno?
California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley is America’s breadbasket. Good soil, fresh water, nice weather, and great farmers – among them many fine Armenians, children and grandchildren of some of the first Armenians to come to America.
Just a few weeks ago, on a visit to Fresno, I enjoyed walking through the bountiful vineyards, orchards, and fields farmed by longtime ANCA supporter Apo Saghdejian. We spoke of our community’s deep roots in this dark soil. Talked about the hard work of lifting up a community, through education and perseverance. Our progress in commerce, agriculture, and civic life. And, ultimately, how Armenian Americans – in Fresno and across the United States – have transformed success into service. We recalled, in particular, how a decade ago, our community advocated for a $235 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant to build rural roads and irrigation projects across Armenia. Closing a circle that was a century in the making, the descendants of poor Armenian Genocide survivors helped bring about a bilateral aid program that brought new hope and opportunity to the land of their forebears. A truly great American story.
As much as this first MCC grant accomplished, there is much more to be done. A second compact holds the potential to deliver a new round of transformative change to Armenia, at a truly pivotal moment in Armenia’s development. Such a future compact could, for example, provide hundreds of millions of dollars to empower Armenia’s public school students with the advanced STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) education required in the rapidly evolving 21st Century workforce. Such a grant would add new energy to Armenia’s growing IT sector, promoting the development of an advanced and sustainable Armenian economy fully integrated into the international financial system.
With so many urgent priorities to consider, you might ask: Why focus on schools? I’ll answer with an ancient Chinese proverb: “If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.
Before looking much farther into the future, let’s take a look back, to 2006. It was in March of that year that the U.S. Government signed a $235 million compact with Armenia, one of the first nations to take part in President George W. Bush’s newly launched MCC. The clearly defined purpose of the 5-year project was to reduce rural poverty by investing in Armenia’s agricultural sector.
The ANCA undertook, in 2006, a comprehensive strategy in support of this MCC compact with Armenia, including engagement with the Bush Administration, outreach to Congress, and consultations with the Armenian government. Drawing on the political capital generated by more than 50 local ANC chapters and tens of thousands of grassroots ANCA activists, we educated relevant stakeholders about the long-term benefits of this agreement, making the case for this new investment in both Armenia and the U.S.-Armenia partnership.
We welcomed the active support of legislative leaders, including Congressman Adam Schiff and then-Congressman George Radanovich, the many Congressional letters advocating for this compact, and the bipartisan attention drawn to this matter during hearings in the U.S. House and Senate. In the end, Armenia was awarded a $235 million grant, which, according to the MCC’s Post-Compact Monitoring and Evaluation Plan issued in January of 2013, delivered the following results:
1) Increased rural incomes in Armenia by nearly $300 million over 20 years;
2) Provided agricultural benefits to more than 420,000 farmers in 350 communities;
3) Created 9,000 hectares of newly irrigated land, and;
4) Constructed 25 kilometers of rural roads.
Because the MCC grant was merit-based (not need-based like many USAID programs), certain portions of Armenia’s grant were withheld due to U.S. concerns related to good governance stemming from the 2008 presidential elections and the violence that followed this controversial vote. As a result only $177 million of the $235 million grant was ultimately allocated.
Today, with a clear eye to the future, the ANCA believes that the time is right for a new STEM education-focused MCC compact that empowers Armenia’s most precious asset, its children.
We have a nearby example of a successful MCC education-based compact, with the Republic of Georgia. Approved in 2013, this compact, Georgia’s second, aims to – according to the MCC – “improve the quality of education in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and increase the earning potential of Georgians through strategic investments from the start of a student’s general education to graduation from technical training and advanced degree programs. The compact includes a focus on increasing women’s participation in STEM professions.” This five-year compact represents a solid blueprint and a smart starting point for a new agreement with Armenia.
Armenia – the once and future Silicon Valley of the region – is perfectly positioned, with the renewed support of MCC, to take off as a major IT power. Already, since 2008, Armenia’s IT sector has grown leaps and bounds, achieving, on average, a 22% annual growth rate. The IT field today directly employs well over 15,000 people in Armenia, and benefits countless more indirectly, via vendor, sourcing, and other relationships. We have seen investments from global IT giants, including Oracle, D-Link, and Microsoft. And, perhaps even more meaningfully, we are witnessing robust homegrown companies, with success stories like PicsArt, a mobile photo editing and sharing application which Forbes listed as one of the 50 hottest startups in 2015. With all this welcome growth, has come a need for thousands of well-trained IT professionals.
In much the same way that the 2006 MCC compact jump-started agriculture in Armenia, a new MCC investment in STEM education would – in partnership with Armenia’s private sector – represent a true game-changer for IT in Armenia.
Let me conclude by going back to my recent visit to Fresno, California. I want to thank Apo Saghdejian for reminding me that farmers have a lot to teach us about the future. If we plant the right seeds, till and nourish our soil, and work hard enough, our nation’s harvest will be bountiful.
Raffi Hamparian is Chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America.