Sunday, March 24, 2013

Civil Society and NGOs in Armenia

Is the existence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) equivalent to civil society? That is, the more NGOs you have, the more civil society you have. What does civil society mean, anyway? Before I moved to Armenia, I have to be honest, I hadn’t really come across the term. Having spent several years working in the non-profit (or not-for-profit) sector in Canada, I moved to the other side of the ocean only to realize that (a) “non-profit” is more often replaced with the term “non-governmental” and (b) the non-governmental sector and civil society are used almost interchangeably. But are they one and the same?

Already back in Canada, I was growing weary of the system in which such organizations operated. It is understood that an organization that is “non-profit” cannot be a commercial enterprise, which leaves it little choice but to seek donors and financial assistance. And this system of donor dependence continues today. I experienced this first-hand in Armenia, where you can never be sure that you’ll have funding next year and if so, whether donors will change their criteria or focus.

This has become more of an issue for me as I conduct research on my thesis, which as I mentioned in an earlier post, will be looking at adoption and use of ICTs (information and communication technologies) by NGOs in Armenia. I’ve begun by studying NGOs in general and then looking at the particular nature of NGOs in Armenia, and the research that I’ve come across only confirmed what I already knew: that the term “civil society” came about in Armenia (and other post-Soviet countries) following the collapse of the Soviet Union and that it immediately became equated with the development and growth in NGOs. And all this was tied to aid from the West, which, I would argue, for all its good intentions, didn’t really achieve its objectives in post-Soviet countries, namely, that of democracy building.

I am not about to argue that democracy (or building democracy) is a bad thing, nor is my aim to criticize civil society development — both are very important processes that needed (and still need) to happen in countries like Armenia. But what I am critical of is the processes, tools and systems that were put in place in the early 90s to achieve them.

 It is obvious to me that more NGOs does not bring about civil society, and, in fact, I would even argue that this term “civil society” has become part of what is known as “NGO speak,” that is, the particular language of NGOs, which led to the mushrooming of NGOs in the 90s in Armenia, as Dr. Armine Ishkanian argues in her paper “Is the Personal Political? The Development of Armenia's NGO Sector During the Post-Soviet Period” (Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies Working Paper Series, 2003).

There’s a lot from Dr. Ishkanian’s paper that speaks to me and my own experience in Armenia, in fact, 10 years after it was written. NGOs (the world over, really) are still dependent on donors, and the intentions of the West from those early days of independence still haven’t solved the problem of a lack of democracy in the country. The problems these NGOs were created to address (poverty, pensioners’ needs, the rights of veterans and families of deceased and injured soldiers, and more recently, domestic violence, to name a few) still exist, and having more NGOs, at least to me, doesn’t seem the best way to address them.

These are just but some of the thoughts on my mind as I try to understand more about the NGO sector in general and NGOs in Armenia in particular, before moving on to exploring the communication strategies of such organizations, particularly their use of social media. Any resources, thoughts, opinions, suggestions of topics not yet explored in this domain would be most welcome. 


  1. Hi Adrineh - I just stumbled upon your blog because I'm Google-stalking Armenia at the moment. :) I'm moving there in August.

    I work with an NPO in the US - our work being to increase access to education for children in Liberia, Pakistan and Tanzania. It's a tricky sector, really, because as you say, it's dependent on donors. But, at the very least, NPOs and NGOs can try to involve the local communities in all decision-making, promoting sustainable approaches to development and ensuring buy-in from the communities... but that's idealistic, too, I realize. I think globalization is actually going to be the catalytic factor in the 21st century. As wifi thrives in the developing world, I think more 'from-within' initiatives will be launching - at least that's the hope.

    So, as I said - I'm moving there in August and I need some insider tips on choosing housing in the city. I wonder if you can recommend any streets/neighborhoods that should make my top 5 list. I am coming from Salt Lake City, UT - but I am one of the liberals. ha! I know how a neighborhood can make or break a living experience. I live on the best street in SLC - 800 East near the 9th and 9th neighborhood; a walkable neighborhood with coffee shops, bakery, neighbors that garden in their front yard, LGBTQ allies, democrats, Obama fans, dog lovers, 'Whole Foodies', etc. In Utah - those are all 'must haves' for me. So - any tips for me? My new employers are looking for places based on some criteria, but I told them I'd like to have a final vote - natural light, quiet and potential easy access to green space are high on my list of desirables.


    1. Hi Rai,

      First of all, my apologies for the long delay in responding to your comment. I don't have a good excuse other than that I wanted to respond to it when I could devote my full attention to compiling a lovely response, except of course that time never comes, does it? We lead such busy lives these days that taking a moment to fully concentrate on a task seems like a luxury. In any case, I'll refrain from rambling further and get to the point: In Yerevan, I would recommend living anywhere central. Highly prized addresses include those on Abovyan St., Sayat-Nova Ave., Teryan St., Tumanyan St., and Mashtots Ave. Of course, these are the major streets in downtown Yerevan and you might prefer smaller, quieter streets. Either way, I would suggest you stick to central Yerevan. If you look at a map of the city you'll see there's a ring road around it. Look for a place to live inside that concentric circle. The access to green space is a bit tougher as there is less and less of it in central Yerevan. Still, you can find some places with a yard.

      As for your comparison with Salt Lake City, you'll realize soon enough that Yerevan is worlds apart: there isn't so much a division of neighborhoods as there is of downtown vs. periphery. And at the end of the day, regardless of where you live, everyone goes downtown for shopping, food, cafes, parks, etc. So I'd stay stick with somewhere central :)

      Hope this helps!

    2. I meant to ask you: for how long will you be in Yerevan? I might be able to recommend particular apartments as I know a few people who rent lovely apartments on or near the streets I mentioned. I would also recommend taking a look at Airbnb to get some idea of what's out there. Contact me via Twitter and I'll send you more details :)