New Initiatives for an Ancient Land

Yerevan, Armenia (September 26, 2007) — Armenia, an ancient Christian land of the southern Caucasus and a former Soviet republic, struggles to move forward from a state-controlled economy and a heavy reliance on subsidies. A devastating earthquake in 1988 (25,000 killed, 500,000 made homeless) coupled with regional disputes with neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey drain the central government’s resources to deal with poverty and unemployment (34% of the population lives below the poverty line). Recently, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), in cooperation with local partners including the Armenian Apostolic Church and Lutheran World Relief, sent and distributed $167,000 worth of quilts to hospitals and orphanages throughout the country. IOCC Regional Director Mark Ohanian, an ethnic Armenian and veteran of IOCC programs in Southeastern Europe, talks about the challenges ahead and how IOCC can bring its expertise in working with the church to help further develop Armenia.

IOCC Dateline: What kinds of social issues is Armenia facing?

Mark Ohanian: After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s’ Armenia suffered greatly because it was heavily dependent on subsidies from Moscow and raw materials from other Soviet republics. The country’s industrial sector is completely outdated and, in some sectors, irrelevant. Due to political turmoil, Azerbaijan and Turkey have imposed blockades on Armenia leaving the country with only two small borders with Georgia and Iran. Consequently, it is extremely difficult for Armenian businesses to import and export. In addition, the earthquake of 1988 and the emergency aid that it required drained the government’s resources. Today, Armenia is still bogged down with high unemployment, massive rural migration to urban centers and abroad, and the lack of healthcare benefits for the elderly.

IOCC Dateline: Armenia has a large diaspora of some 8 million of its people living throughout the world. Is there concern about a “brain drain” in Armenia?

Mark Ohanian: Armenians are well known for being skilled traders and businessmen. The country has also produced a great many artists: painters, photographers, writers, opera singers. This area of the south Caucuses was known as a cultural center in the Soviet Union. Armenia is a very singular and self-contained culture and the people pride themselves on the fact that in the 4th century it was the first country to declare Christianity as the state religion. But since 1992, an estimated 1 million skilled and unskilled professionals have left to seek better education and employment opportunities in Russia, Europe and the U.S.

IOCC Dateline: What kind of development work has taken place in Armenia?

Mark Ohanian: There are a number of U.S. and international organizations here that are focusing primarily on infrastructure: road rehabilitation, agriculture, public health clinics and improving hospitals. However, Armenia continues to need more assistance. Many improvements have been made in the capital of Yerevan, but less than 10 kilometers outside the city, you will find no rural or agricultural development. Most people survive on subsistence farming and lack adequate access to social, educational, and healthcare services.

IOCC Dateline: What makes Armenia a good fit for an organization like IOCC?

Mark Ohanian: Being an Orthodox agency has certain credibility. Also, using a faith-based approach that works closely with the Armenian Apostolic Church is a good fit. Armenian clergy have neither the resources nor the expertise to provide social services to their people. We can help train them because we have done it in other countries like Romania and Ethiopia where we have trained thousands of Orthodox priests. Also, there is a problem here with resources not reaching the poor. And although there is a thriving indigenous NGO sector, it is mostly concentrated in Yerevan. The civil society and agricultural development programs that we fine tuned in Bosnia and Serbia are desperately needed in Armenia.

IOCC, founded in 1992 as the official humanitarian aid agency of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), has implemented over $250 million in relief and development programs in 33 countries around the world.