21 Years of Independence: A Few Lessons On Nation Building 101

Friday, December 28th, 2012 | Posted by Alex Sardar

Visual overview of Counterpart's activities over from 2010-12

Armenia's development as a post-Soviet republic is not unique, nor is
it exactly like any other country's process. Armenians have their own
story, most recently laced with painful episodes of genocide, natural
disaster and war. For much of the last 21 years since regaining
independence, Counterpart International, a global non-profit
development organization working in more than two dozen countries, has
been in Armenia working on a variety of projects with funding from the
US State Department and the US Agency for International Development
(USAID) as well as other bilateral and private donors, including the
Norwegian Government, UNDP and the Black Sea Trust.

Asbarez sat down with Alex Sardar, the organization's outgoing country
director for more than eight years to find out what he and his team
have learned in Armenia, and why we should consider those lessons

Asbarez: Counterpart is involved in a variety of things in Armenia.
Tell us what binds all this work together.

Alex Sardar: Our work in Armenia began well over a decade ago with
humanitarian assistance programs in direct response to continuing
crises in the aftermath of tragic earthquake in Spitak and of course,
the Karabakh war. Eight years ago, with support of USAID we made a
shift in our work, and began addressing long-term development
priorities as part of our civil society and community development
projects. In other words while we continued assisting Armenia with
humanitarian commodities, we very intentionally began working on
developing skills and institutions that would be able to create
long-term solutions for Armenia's development objectives. And this
really brings us to the common denominator of the variety of
activities. If you strip away the color, bells, and whistles of every
single activity, you'll find that we build everything we do around the
very important premise of citizens engaging with their community
organizations, including governance organizations, non-profits,
educational, PTAs etc., to identify challenges, and to create
consensus around solutions. In other words, citizens taking ownership
of their own answers in development. When we talk about this, people
usually respond with an `of course, that makes sense' but you would be
surprised how often in the cycle of project management this very
simple equation gets short changed, and so we've made it our mission
both in our country program in Armenia, but also institutionally that
we never discount the value and staying power that equation delivers
in our work.

And let me add that at the heart of that equation lies the very
concept of partnership, because at the end of the day if we don't
truly partner with those very communities and those other donors and
interested stakeholders, then we have no business here.

Counterpart International's Armenia team conferring on community
development strategies

Asbarez: OK, we understand that theoretically this works. Give us
examples of how it works in real terms on the ground.

A.S. : To give you a sense of how it works in everything we do, allow
me to first offer a quick overview of the kinds of projects we're
involved with at the moment. On the macro reform level we're
partnering with the Ministry of Territorial Administration to
facilitate the development of a strategic document on local government
strengthening, meaning making municipal services responsive to and
effective for citizens, with greater autonomy for municipal leaders;
and with the Ministry of Justice we've just launched an ambitious
effort to overhaul Armenia's non-profit sector legislation. This
effort is essential to the third sector being viable and sustainable.
On the community level we work with municipal authorities in 43
communities in all Marzes, non-profit organizations and informal
CBOs - mostly youth groups - to building capacity in anything from
community organizing to advocacy to community development efforts.

Renovated Water Reservoir in Aragatsavan providing drinking water to
5,600 residents

If we take the decentralization policy document as an example, while
it would be easier for us to devise the reform legislation or
initiative and lobby directly with the executive branch to move it
forward - certainly faster and much cleaner in terms of the project
cycle - we instead chose to do it slightly differently. First, we
brought together a coalition of think tanks that have over the years
worked on various elements of governance reform, facilitated their
coalition with financial resources for the activities, and worked with
them and the government to develop a well-vetted and solid document on
decentralization objectives. At the same time, we worked with the
municipal government representatives in our partner communities to
generate discussion, ideas and debate on the proposals in the
strategic document. Along with that, under the leadership of the
ministry the document has now been put into circulation for greater
discussion, and the coalition of organizations that have been working
on it are together advocating for the same principles, representing
certain compromises but certainly consensus ideas.

So, while at the policy level we work on strong rooted legislation, we
continue to work at various levels of society to ignite and strengthen
a participatory culture that strengthens institutions.

This had never been done before. It took us close to two years to get
to the point of moving this national policy document, which is one of
Armenia's international obligations under the Council of Europe's
Charter on Local Self-Governance, to this stage, but we're confident
that it has been a process that's been built on smart foundation.

Asbarez: Decentralization is no doubt an important and long-term
reform item. What are some of the more focused activities you
undertake, and how do you apply your approach to those cases?

A.S.: Well, it's important to remember that everything we do is part
of a unified approach. In other words, if we're doing decentralization
work at the national level, then we incubate some of the new
approaches and hypotheses in that reform proposal on the community
level to make sure that the ideas are grounded in the realities of
Armenia's own development trajectory. If we're talking about
non-profit sustainability and accountability, then with every grant
that we provide for to an NGO to conduct an activity, we make sure
that the right systems and levels of reporting and accountability is
in place. But more importantly, each grant has a built in capacity
building mechanism, whether in the form of supply-driven trainings on
transparency, strategic management, project cycle oversight, or on
more thematic issues such as legislative process advocacy,
communication and so on.

Home made cheese production in Gomk as part of livelihoods programs
Counterpart International

With that in mind, at the community level we've been testing out a
number of very successful approaches. For the community development
portion of our portfolio - which in plain spoken English means, creating
the necessary conditions for people to live and work with dignity in
their own communities, as opposed to emigrating to other countries or
moving to large cities and leaving what amounts to Armenia's lifeline
communities - whether in terms of the national breadbasket or security
on the borders. Let me give you some numbers to give you the magnitude
of activity-in the 58 communities where we work, in the course of the
last 15 months, we've initiated and completed 75 infrastructure
projects and community programs. This has been done through voluntary
efforts of the communities themselves. These projects have included
renovation of kindergartens, heating systems in schools and arts
centers, library and community center structures, street lighting
systems, youth and senior citizen centers, and public park and
recreation areas. Programs have included environment-focused campaigns
on trash collection, healthy lifestyle activities, computer literacy
activities, water sanitation and management campaigns etc.

The process began for us through a string of town hall meetings in the
target communities, stretching from border to border, and covering
every Marz. We're in places as remote as Meghri, or as close as Koti
(in Northeaster Tavush, a stone's throw away from the border with
Azerbaijan). I say it with pride that it took very little work on our
behalf to mobilize more than 6000 Armenian citizens in these
communities to create community working groups (CWGs). These CWGs are
very much like community development boards in the United States.
We've have a retention rate of more than 10% of those citizens - more
than 600 are permanently engaged in the process. That means, without a
financial incentive and with very little financial investment on our
behalf, we've found anywhere from 8-10 citizens in each of these
communities to volunteer their time to plan, communicate, oversee, and
fundraise for projects that are of concern and import to the entire
community. Now, I have to remind you that we work in communities with
200-500 inhabitants. 10 people can make a huge difference. In the
larger cities like Kapan or Vanadzor, we've approached the process the
same way but on a neighborhood level. We've had remarkable
partnerships from municipal leaders, and we've been inspired by women
and young people in these communities. The grant investment that we've
made into these projects has been just under $1 million. But what has
made us take note and truly appreciate the commitment of Armenia's
communities is that they have fundraised more than 60% on top of that
amount from their budgets, from private sources and from the business

Here's another number for you - our projects have touched on the lives
of more than 410,000 Armenians. If we take a step back and do the
math, I hope you'll agree with me that it doesn't take a lot for
Armenians to set their own agenda for their own communities, and then
drive it forward. They simply look for some know-how and a bit of
learning in the process, and it all comes together.

Celebrating new art school in Syunik Counterpart International

I constantly cite one community when I talk about Armenia's successes.
Aragatsavan, located in the Aragatsotn province in Armenia has not had
access to clean water for two decades. The community's water
reservoir, a holdover from the Soviet Union, held the community's
daily allocation of 200 tons of water; leaks in the reservoir,
however, were resulting in a loss of over 70 tons of water a day and
contaminating the remaining reserve. As a result, the CWG assisted by
municipal officials and community organizations applied for partial
funding to urgently fix the reservoir, only after they had gone
through the community prioritization process. The community
spearheaded the renovation of the water reservoir, installed a new
pumping station and shared 56% of the total project cost. Nearly 20
years of a broken system was solved in two and a half months. Today,
all 5,600 residents of Aragatsavan have access to clean drinking
water. That's around $20,000 of investment, and invaluable amounts of
commitment and political will.

There are many more examples on our sites www.counterpart.am or
www.counterpart.org. Anyone can get involved through tools to donate,
to keep up on ongoing projects or to provide feedback on how we may do
things better. We're also very active on our Facebook Page at

Asbarez: What's your sense of where Armenia's headed at 21?

A.S.: The work of our team here has taught me two very important
things: there is an opportunity around every corner in Armenia. If
organizations and individuals are serious about getting involved, then
there is no question that they will see the impact of their efforts.
But the biggest thing to remember is that the reason why we've been
able to be successful at most of our initiatives is our ability to
really allow Armenians to drive their own agenda - we simply play a role
in facilitating process, offering knowledge and comparative experience
and a some financial resource. The second lesson is that building
organizations, nurturing process, and building capacity is the only
way that Counterpart has been able to make a dent into the most
pressing priorities in this country - and in so doing, we've built
partnerships that will outlast any project cycle or donor funding.
These are linkages that will go on for a long time.

Much like the partnerships we've built, Armenians and may I also
suggest Diasporans need to view their engagement with one another as a
partnership of equals. This is where Armenia's secret to prosperity
lies. If that collaboration is unlocked, the successes ahead are