A call to the diaspora to help strengthen civil society in Armenia
By Laura L. Constantine
As of 2016, there were 4,499 public organizations, 1,014 foundations and 219 legal entities and unions registered in Armenia, according to the Armenia Ministry of Justice. And, according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, Armenia’s Ministry of Labor and Social affairs has an established process for the registration of CSO’s in contrast to the suppressive policies toward the non-profit model employed by other countries in the region.
While these are positive indicators for a growing civil society movement in Armenia, other assessments show that only 10-15% of these non-profits, typically referred to as Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) outside of the U.S., are actually operational. This begs the question: how does Armenia’s CSO community close the gap between cause and capacity?
To help answer that question, AGBU recently launched a European Commission-funded program called BRIDGE for CSOs. BRIDGE is an acronym for Bringing Real Impact with Diaspora Global Engagement. Together with the Eurasian Partnership Foundation (EPF), AGBU will implement this three-year program specifically designed to strengthen civil society in Armenia using diaspora talent and expertise. Within this umbrella goal is a matrix of activities that includes sector-specific tailored trainings, a university certificate program, small grants of 20,000-30,000 EUR and a Good Will Ambassador component.
Now through BRIDGE, a new generation of diasporan professionals is being called upon to help Armenia’s citizens foster a robust civil society in Armenia, growing the capacity to make a positive impact within their communities. Not only that, but CSOs are often on the front lines of advocacy and policy shaping to help ensure that the government is responding to the needs of the people. CSOs can also address issues that are beyond the reach or priority of the government—from informal education and soup kitchens to refugees and the environment, often serving as a low cost but quality service provider with the participation of volunteers. Oftentimes, CSOs function as a watchdog to keep government accountable such as the citizen activist groups involved in missions such as free and fair elections and human rights.
How BRIDGE Engages Diasporan Consultants
Each qualifying CSO project must include a mentor from the diaspora. BRIDGE program coordinator Isabella Merabova describes how a mentor from the diaspora plays a key role in each phase of the model. “For the training component, we invite diasporans to provide theme-specific insights and knowledge of their field of expertise, be it health, sports, culture or another discipline central to a particular NGO mission. These pro-bono consultations can occur in person or online through TogetherforArmenia.am, a platform we manage in cooperation with UNICEF.” The website stores profiles of self-registered diaspora experts who identify areas of expertise they wish to share. In turn, a local CSO enters its mentor search criteria until an appropriate match is made. From there, the mentor-mentee relationship proceeds, with consultations through Skype and other teleconferencing platforms. “Ideally, the mentor will, at some point, travel to Armenia to meet the local team in person, thereby strengthening the human connection, ” Merabova added. AGBU Armenia oversees this entire process to ensure optimal mentor-mentee outcomes.
Good Will Ambassadors for each CSO are also drawn from outside the country, usually a prominent individual who is well-regarded to help build trust among potential stakeholders and supporters. “These representatives can help raise awareness of a mission to the broader audience, either on social media, in TV/Radio appearances, or simply as a keynote speaker or performer at a fundraising event,” Merabova noted.
Building a Connection
Arsen Stepanyan is a BRIDGE team leader who recognizes the challenge of building trust for the sake of financial sustainability. “We want to gain public trust among our fellow citizens, too. From Soviet times, we bear this history of not trusting the non-profit sector because for years we were taught to do so. This was particularly the case with groups focused on protecting or advancing human rights; they were marginalized and under constant scrutiny and attack. So they never had a chance to truly show the work they do and their potential. We are trying to reshape that view to show the public that the non-profit sector is a trustworthy partner that can deliver quality services.”
In the aftermath of recent political developments in Armenia, Stepanyan has high hopes for the civil society movement. “It’s a very exciting time to see how the change was brought about by the people. These activists out in the streets were not representing political parties; they were trying to make culture change. We are at a critical juncture where we can create synergies between regular social and human service programs and the broader processes happening.”
Professional Management Training
Another way of advancing the CSO sector in Armenia is through a new certificate program offered by the American University of Armenia (AUA) Extension Program, which is part of the BRIDGE experience. Presented to 30 qualifying representatives of local CSOs, the curriculum is designed to teach a more broad-based and sophisticated skill set for managing and growing a civic enterprise. According to Merabova, “We have mastered the concept of capacity building which is specific to the purpose of the mission, but we also need to step up our skills in overall capacity building, namely practices that apply to non-profits across the board, including financial management, accounting, and human resource management.” This formal academic training will challenge the players involved to integrate proven methods in capacity building into their programs.
A Results-Driven Focus
To date, 14 Armenian experts from the US, Netherlands, Lebanon, Russia, UK and Syria have provided pro-bono consultancies to 25 CSOs. Around 66 CSO representatives participated in trainings on Art and Culture, Education and Social Entrepreneurship themes. Three events with the engagement of good will ambassadors were organized to increase the level of public awareness and trust towards CSOs.
Twenty-four projects have been awarded grants, with missions as diverse as empowering girls in Armenia through sports; transforming Wikicamps; supporting girls in IT; developing Armenia’s film industry; promoting hiking and ecotourism; making ballet performances more accessible in the regions; introducing historical reenactment for tourists; teaching art through board games; 3D modeling, helping children with diabities and supporting families of disabled children; establishing eco camps, producing dried herbs and fruit; supporting meat production in Tavush and developing communities through tourism. There is even a techno-linguistics cultural organization seeking to revitalize Armenian literature through alternative digital platforms. Other NGOs participating in the program include the Civilitas Foundation for journalism, Start Up Armenia Scientific Foundation, which creates start up clubs to teach youth skills required for the start-up ecosystem, and Green Age NGO, which promotes organic agriculture to support farmers in rural areas.
“AGBU was an obvious choice for BRIDGE,” says AGBU Armenia’s president and Central Board member Vasken Yacoubian. “Our global presence creates an extensive network of potential mentors, especially alumni from our schools, summer camps and internship programs as well as scholarship recipients. Many of these alums are now active members of local AGBU Young Professionals groups, representing a cross-section of talent, expertise and mission-related specialties. This makes AGBU uniquely positioned to raise awareness so diasporan professionals can help inspire a new generation of Armenian citizens.”