NGOs in Armenia: A Response to Gharabegian

Maro Matosian (*)
Areg Gharabegian in his article “Non-Governmental Organizations in Armenia” (The Armenian Weekly, Jan. 18, 2014) made an effort to explain the situation of NGOs, their activities and problems, in Armenia. Having worked in this sector since 1991, I would like to explore certain points he made, as he painted a rather critical picture of the civil society organizations in Armenia.
I would like to start by noting that in the Soviet era, any form of a non-governmental organization was not allowed. It is true that the earthquake of 1988 opened the door for the first time in the Soviet Union to donations as well as to organizations and specialists to come and work in the devastated area, and subsequently throughout Armenia.

It was not clear if Mr. Gharabegian’s comments were addressed to local NGOs or diaspora- based ones. There are quite important differences between the two: The local NGOs have less resources and are, by and large, unknown to the Armenian Diaspora, which is a large donor for projects. Diaspora-based NGOs working in Armenia are more resourceful, have staff who speak English, and have a tremendous edge in fundraising and PR techniques, as well as grant writing. I should add another category that has brought significant assistance to Armenia: organizations like the ARS, AGBU, the Armenian International Medical Association, and those made up of various professionals groups like engineers and physicists.
The author found that NGOs were incapable of meeting the “growing demand for emergency services and operations…due to a lack of NGO skills, knowledge, and capabilities, and the absence of an appropriate legal framework.” I tend to disagree with this statement; it is overly simplistic to put the blame on NGOs alone. We must remember that newly independent Armenia was also inexperienced and lacked the infrastructure, laws, and experience to deal with aid assistance and logistics. Sadly, the government even today does not have an emergency fund or the capability to deal with disasters. And, have we forgotten the lack of control and oversight, the total anarchy that took place at the airport, customs, and ports, where goods were diverted directly from these locations into the hands of thieves? I know of doctors who came to teach new methods in surgery or provide valuable equipment to local doctors, who were unwilling to cooperate or were only focused on going to the U.S., never to return.
It is true that many NGOs mushroomed in the late 1990’s; this phenomenon was seen in all of the post-Soviet states. I believe this is a normal process of experimenting with something new, especially where laws are weak or inexistent. However, now, we have a good core of local NGOs that are actually very efficient and doing good work. The mission of these NGOs center around human rights, women’s rights, the rights of the disabled (both physical and mental), youth, the environment, peace dialogue, anti corruption, minorities (religious and LGBT), education, health, culture.
Since 1991, as Mr. Gharabegian pointed out, various rules and laws have been established primarily to regulate the sector. However, I disagree with the author when he writes, “The law states that Armenia recognizes the crucial role of NGOs in the development of civil society and aims to promote the establishment of NGOs as legal entities.” In practice, civil society organizations in Armenia are a thorn in the government’s side because they point out all of the irregularities, corruption, discrimination, the government’s lack of assistance or political will for change on various issues, and the overall lack of human rights and democratic principles in the country. NGOs, depending on their area of interest, are closely scrutinized by the government and are many times attacked for being “grant-eaters,” even though Armenia’s budget exists on grants from the IMF and World Bank (this arose as an opportunistic reaction to the landscape of the 1990’s, when jobs were scarce and people basically tailored projects/approaches any which way in order to secure funding). This argument is used to demean the active NGOs, rather than address the issues they raise.
Lately, the Armenian government has begun to “promote” local NGOs by opening their own non-governmental organizations, which in Armenia (and elsewhere) we call GONGO (government organization NGO)—a paradox. Their existence, seen throughout the former Soviet states, is to funnel World Bank, EU, and UN money to their own organizations, which in reality are part of the government. This is also done as a method of control: By putting their own NGOs into the mix, they can influence/infiltrate discussions and claim that other so-called civil society organizations are of a different opinion (which, in reality, is the position of the government).
The international organizations know about this, but as this is a new phenomenon, they have not taken any significant steps. Mr. Gharabegian mentioned that the World Bank gives out grants to NGOs –actually the latter mentioned international organizations work, mainly, with the government directly and the bulk of the donations goes to the government.
I would like to say a word about volunteers. In post-Soviet states this was a foreign concept, although I can say that in the past four to five years, we have seen young people wanting to volunteer. Many, however, look for paying jobs, given the low income levels of their families. However, great work has been done by U.S.-based organizations like Armenian Volunteer Corps and Birthright Armenia, which bring volunteers from the diaspora—and with them, a huge skill set—which in turn helps the local NGOs.
Regarding transparency, I agree that only some organizations are trying to be transparent; however, the ones that receive the biggest donations in Armenia, like the Holly Church of Etchmiadzin, are not even accountable for these funds. Even the All-Armenian Fund is not that transparent.
Finally, I would like to point out that the local and international-based NGO sector in Armenia has come a long way since 1991. Much training, experience, and practice has raised the level of efficiency. Of course, there is competition (as there is throughout the world) when funding is so scarce, but this can be a good thing. NGOs have moved from providing emergency humanitarian aid to development, and now to building civil society and promoting human rights. Overall, civil society over the past eight years has contributed greatly in raising public awareness on various issues, and in bringing attention to what the government either hides, considers taboo, or is in denial about. It is because of these civil society organizations and local NGOs that today we have increased awareness and civic activism engaged in the promotion of the rule of law and human rights, and able to offer services where the government is otherwise absent.
Mr. Gharabegian, I am not sure how you measure “support and citizen participation in NGO activities,” but suffice it to say that NGOs have moved public opinion greatly. And when at street protests we used to see three to five lone individuals, now we see hundreds. And when in the past no one paid attention to domestic violence, now we get over 56,000 hits for an internet article. NGOs have passed amendments to existing laws; in our case, we are working to pass a domestic violence law, and others have developed policies and mechanisms to achieve systemic change in Armenia.
Lastly, I would like to point out that NGOs have developed, even flourished, at a time when international assistance to Armenia has steadily gone down. We now see truly motivated NGOs and even social movements that want to bring change to Armenia and voice the concerns of society at large. I would urge Mr. Gharabegian to take a closer look at the impact and value of NGOs in Armenia.

(*) Founder and executive director, Women’s Support Center NGO, Armenia

"The Armenian Weekly," February 8, 2014

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