Saturday, January 2, 2016

What $300,000 'Buys' You in Armenia

I wrote a letter to several friends a day before New Years Eve asking them a hypothetical question: If you, your organization or an organization that you know of was to receive an annual injection of $300,000 US, what could you/they do with it? How would it serve to expand operations? What kind of an impact could it have?

I don't have $300,000 so you may ask why I was asking. Here's the backstory.

Last year posts began appearing on my newsfeed by an organization called the American Armenian Rose Float Association. Apparently they were building a float to participate in the Tournament of Roses Parade in California.

Novel idea. Why not? We spend inordinate amounts of money, time and resources doing many banal things, both here in Armenia and the Diaspora, why not a float?

The posts kept appearing no thanks to some mysterious algorithm by Facebook, but I brushed them off and went on with my life.

This year, the posts began appearing again about a new float. I thought it was a one-off thing, didn't realize it was an annual endeavor. I saw it as a message, so I went to to try and figure out what the big deal was. Indeed, they were building another float with a $300,000 price tag.

On their donations page, it asks you to join the "AARFA movement" and make a donation to help create the second American Armenian Rose Float. You could choose to be a tulip ($2500) or a begonia ($10,000) or a rose ($100,000) or you could donate any amount that fit your budget.

On the header of their page, it says, "It takes 3000 #HappyArmenians donating $100 to finance an American Armenian Rose float each year."

Each year.

$300,000 US.

Each year.

For a float.

Now, it's your money, you can spend it any way you want.

But let me tell you what $300,000US can buy you in Armenia.

$300,000 would fully support 60 new Armenian teachers through the Teach for Armenia program, impacting approximately 4200 school kids in Armenia's most underserved rural areas.

Think about it, 4200 school children.

An annual investment of $300,000 could help several small villages become semi-sustainable through micro-projects, especially frontier villages that come under constant Azerbaijani sniper fire. Money like that could help Grisha Dilbaryan realize his dream of opening a cafe in the border village of Berkaber or building a new greenhouse to grow vegetables and earn an income.

$300,000 could help dozens of Syrian-Armenians set up a small business in Armenia, ensuring them a livelihood and dignity in their homeland.

$300,000 could do wonders for an organization like the Homeland Development Initiative Foundation. It would mean needles knitting, hooks crocheting, needles sewing, employing women in the rural areas of Armenia, empowering them, their families and their communities for the next 4-5 years.

With $300,000, Armenia could have more innovative spaces like the Impact Hub in the smaller cities of the country that would foster change and become a catalyst for creativity and progress.

With $300,000 we could identify families living in rural regions and in poverty to purchase livestock to help feed themselves and make money selling eggs, milk, cheese, them the chance to stay on the land.

$300,000 would help Gayane Khachatryan, a young woman from Vanadzor keep her small business afloat. Gayane solely hires people with disabilities to help make Christmas decorations on a shoe-string budget. 

$300,000 could help the Women's Support Center run a full-service domestic violence shelter in Armenia for more than two years.

$300,000 could alternately sustain this organization for about 5-7 years to realize systemic change in Armenia. They could do their life-saving work without financial worries to help develop legislation, organize trainings, prepare shelter staff, put in place good practices for social workers, police, judges and other service providers.

All of these programs are run by non-governmental organizations or individuals. They have commitment, passion and a proven track record in service delivery. People-to-people initiatives, i.e. Diaspora organizations and individuals connecting and working with people on the ground beyond the reach of the corrupt hand of Armenia's government, is an experiment worth trying.

As one friend said, let's forget for a second all the organizations this money could go to and all the profit it could do if invested in sustainable micro-porjects in Armenia or even the Diaspora. If the funds for the float are being raised for the sole purpose of promoting and representing Armenia to a given non-Armenian society, perhaps it could be justified as a marketing tool for the country. In the grand scheme of things, during the 2.5 hour parade through Pasadena plus about a minute on air, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of of people would see the Armenian float. Then what?

We often talk about sustainability in Armenia. We bang our heads against heavy, concrete walls trying to figure out how what we do makes an impact, how it can support sustainable development. We don't always succeed, we've had some spectacular failures to be sure.

But it's about having vision. A narrative. A plan.

As one other friend asked, is building a float wrong? No, it isn't if that's what you choose to support. He went on to write, "This is not an Armenia in memories, in museums and in books. This is an Armenia of young flesh and blood, of ambition and of achievements to come. This is an Armenia waiting to happen."

I am happy to see so many committed Armenians living in foreign lands still struggling to maintain identity with pride and purpose. The hundreds of volunteers who probably spent hundreds of hours putting together the float for this year's Rose Bowl parade did so with purity of heart. No one argues that.

But without a strong, vital, self-sustaining, sovereign country, building a float for a 60 second sound bite simply keeps Armenia the Armenia of memories, in museums and in books.