What follows is an account of a round of interviews organized by UNDP and UNV Armenia and held in Yerevan on 16, 17 and 18 July 2015. The interviews were meant to get Future Makers Global in sync with the way Armenian institutional actors and their main stakeholders think about employment, social cohesion and data for accountability; they also attempted to scope grassroots constructive initiatives in the country, and to forge stronger ties with them. The interviews were run by myself and @Iriedawta.
Policy priorities and trends
In Armenia, the labor market does not seem to be working well for young people. Youth unemployment (age 16-30) is estimated to be 22%. 25% of employed young people have not signed a contract. 60% of the employed young people do not trust the fairness of the recruitment process. A recent comprehensive survey study found that 60% of young people surveyed are considering migrating to find better work; 9% have already made the decision and are organising the move (source: http://www.ystudies.am/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/The_issues_of_youth_employment_in_the_RA_english.pdf).
Youth policy is the responsibility of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, that seems to have a sophisticated understanding of the terrain and operation mode. The Ministry’s main policy document, called the Youth Concept (updated 2014), lists ten “directions” for its own work:
1. youth participation 2. employment 3. lifestyle 4. spiritual cultural education (know Armenian history and the culture, in a sort of romantic Heimatgefuhle Stimmung) 5. military patriotic education 6. preserving family values and traditions and supporting young families 7. lifelong learning and recognition of informal education 8. support to international youth collaboration and intercultural dialogue (!) 9. support to youth mobility (!) 10. study the youth sector and constantly improve its legal framework (the concept and the strategy themselves)
The Concept is then operationalized into five-year strategies. The current one (2013-2017) has chosen five priorities:
• youth participation and intercultural dialogue • economic support • lifestyle • spiritual culture education • lifelong learning and recognition of informal education
The main novelty of the past two years is the establishment of the Youth Research Institute to provide analysis that supports policy. The quality of youth workers is also being increased with training of trainers programmes.
The joint programme being proposed could fit well into several directions of the Concept, and into the “youth participation” element of the strategy.
The Armenian Ministry of Youth already has a tradition of empowering young people to do their own projects, albeit within the usual constraints of a fairly conservative society. The main instrument it uses is a grant system. Applications happen online and are reviewed by independent experts, with minimal interference from Ministry staff. Another programme with a culture of eliciting input from youth is the one called Youth Capital: every year cities apply to be the following year’s Youth Capital of Armenia; applications are then processed by a panel of civil servants, representatives of youth NGOs and independent experts. The selected capital typically schedules some kind of physical intervention, like renovating a park or other public space) and does so through open calls, where young people are encouraged to participate. Though these calls concern only design proposals, we were told by Ministry staff that even the actual construction will involve young people themselves.
With respect to our idea of supporting grassroots communities as a possible partner in public goods provision and stewardship, we recommend that the entry point to partner up with the government is the Ministry itself. Unlike its counterparts in most countries, the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Armenia has an “executive arm” called the Youth Events Holding Centre, a legally separate entity owned by the Ministry, that has been working very closely with youth NGOs since 2005. The newly minted Youth Research Institute is part of the Events Holding Centre; the Institute seems to find our approach interesting and is willing to help.
Armenian authorities and Western international donors speak different languages. The former use expressions like “military patriotic education”, “spiritual culture education” and “moral upbringing”, which sound awkward and patronizing in the West. The latter prefer “youth activation” and “citizen engagement”, and “gender issues” which in Armenia are understood as troublesome and disruptive of their culture, at least in certain circles. Some extra effort might be required to converge with government partners on this matter.
News from the grassroots scene
The Armenian scene can count on very small, as yet seemingly disconnected completely independent initiatives. Some are related to arts, like the Institute for Contemporary Arts (http://www.ica.am/) and Home 45 (https://www.facebook.com/homefortyfive). There are environmentalist groups (http://teghut.am/) and others dedicated to LGBT rights like Queering Yerevan (http://queeringyerevan.blogspot.com/ – this group is extremely wary of getting involved with international actors, as they are regularly accused of being foreign agents out to disrupt Armenian traditional family values).
Several NGOs are working on youth in Armenia. They seem to be regularly collaborating with each other and with the ministry. Three of them seem particularly interesting to us, as they provide support to grassroots initiatives spearheaded by young people: Ayo! (https://www.weareayo.org), the Awesome Foundation (http://www.awesomefoundation.org/en/chapters/yerevan) and UNDP’s own Kolba Innovation Lab (http://kolba.am/en/). Several of the projects being supported by these three initiatives are in the ballpark of community-driven urban planning – for example, the Awesome Foundation supports Home 45.
A most interesting possible partner in Armenia is the Simonian Foundation, who established in Yerevan the visionary Tumo Center for learning (http://www.tumo.org/en/tumo/about-tumo), well funded and sporting a very advanced education model around ICT (game development, animation, computer graphics) based on self-motivation and letting students aged 12-18 take charge of their own learning. Tumo has a strong community orientation, and has taken charge of the Tumanian park just outside its building. There is also a Tumo center in Dilijan and two more centres will be opened soon - in Gyumri and Stepanakert (Nagorno Karabagh), with the one in Gyumri having a similar building-cum-park structure, and they seem to be willing to discuss collaboration around the Gyumri park. We met Tumo’s director, who is very forward-thinking and approves of most things bottom-up and community-driven. Moreover, they have excellent connection with the city’s tech scene (we have requested more contact information).
Finally, all of this scene was brought together by the recent Electric Yerevan protest, that seems to have been for Armenia what the Tbilisi flash flood on June 13th was for Georgia. Absolutely everyone we met, from Youth Research Center staff to Orange employees, artists and activists claimed to have been involved.