Deputy Minister Zhanna Andreasyan (photo Aram Arkun)

Deputy Minister Visits US to Combat Poverty and Social Oppression in Armenia

379
0

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zhanna Andreasyan was in Boston at the end of September on a week-long working visit sponsored by the Women’s Support Center of Armenia. With her was the executive director of the latter organization, Maro Matosian and its project coordinator Hasmik Gevorgyan. Lenna Garibian in Boston organized the visit in collaboration with local social workers.

Andreasyan has a doctorate in sociology from Yerevan State University and has lectured at the latter institution for some fifteen years. She also has lectured at Yerevan State Linguistic Sociological University and did research at Socioscope NGO. She worked from 2012 to 2019 at the Center for Education Projects Program Implementation Unit (http://www.cfep.am/en/) of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Armenia.

On February 15 of this year, Andreasyan was appointed as the only female deputy minister, out of four in total in her ministry. Her sphere of work includes family, women and children’s issues, social aid, the evaluation of vulnerability of families, allocation of aid, and social and housing funding.

She is not a member of Nikol Pashinyan’s political party but as a member of government she is a part of its team. She was not a direct participant in the Velvet Revolution but said she liked the changes.

Efforts to Deal with Ppoverty in Armenia

The social issues she deals with are connected in part to the widespread poverty in Armenia. Andreasyan said that poverty is defined by the Statistical Committee of the government, which has determined that 25.7 percent of the total population is poor, of which 1.1 percent is extremely poor. The poverty level is set through the cost of a food basket, which at present is approximately 25,500 dram. The general poverty level is a little over 40,000 dram for one person for one month’s expenses. The Statistical Committee uses a methodology which it prepared together with the World Bank. In addition to poverty monetarily, the committee also calculates the non-monetary deprivations or consequences.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Andreasyan declared that the government agenda is to eliminate both poverty and extreme poverty through encouraging working. It does not see providing passive financial aid as a solution. Instead, its approach is to strengthen the individuals and families who are in difficult straits so that they will have stable sources of income through employment. The distinction would be made between those who only temporarily cannot work due to circumstances and those who are physically or mentally unable to work, as well as children.

Andreasyan and Matosian both stated that they believed there was a political dimension to poverty under the prior regime. The system of aid was intended in part to keep families dependent on the government so that during elections it was easy to sway them with small sums of money.

Andreasyan said, “A culture of poverty is reproducing itself.” The poverty in Armenia after independence some thirty years ago was of a different nature, but now it has more profound reverberations in society, with greater family issues. It is no longer just financial in nature.

On the one hand, the budget of the ministry of labor and social affairs is the second largest in the Armenian republic, after the defense ministry. Every year the state has allocated a large sum, close to 40 billion drams annually, to help the poor, with little change in the quality of life of recipients. Some families have been in the same situation, receiving aid, for ten years.

Andreasyan explained: “Poverty is also the feeling of insignificance of your own voice. You think of yourself as someone who can do nothing. I don’t think this existed 30 years ago.”

Consequently, she said, when we speak of the vanquishing of poverty, first of all we speak of reestablishing the importance of the person in society, a person who respects himself, who makes his own decisions and takes his own steps. To do this, she said, the government is looking at the issue in a complete manner, from beginning to end, to assess what resources and programs are necessary. Sometimes services to strengthen an individual are more important than financial aid. In this process, social workers are very important, as they are the ones who must evaluate the problems and needs of individuals.

From left, Liam Lowney, Executive Director, Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance (MOVA), Lenna Garibian, and Zhanna Andreasyan (photo Aram Kaligian)

“For this very reason,” Andreasyan continued, “we are completely changing the system and want to establish a service with new content, a unified social service.” At present there are several different services, one to examine employment needs, another dealing with pensions, a third handling issues of the handicapped, and another to evaluate social vulnerability. Andreasyan said that people should not have to run from one place to another to receive the necessary services and encounter bureaucratic difficulties. Instead, it must be one united structure. This is important for using state resources productively as well as from the perspective of being “human-centered” or anthropocentric [mardakentron], a phrase often used by officials in the Pashinyan government.

Instead of four different services in four different buildings with four different sets of staff in a given province, Andreasyan said, there will be only one, which will be more productive and efficient.

There are already effective programs which exist in Armenia, Andreasyan said, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel. International and domestic organizations have carried out such programs on a small scale. They work one to one-and-a-half years intensively with a family, providing services to strengthen it. They help provide means of employment. For example, they might give a woman who can sew well a sewing machine, plus lessons and then clients, so she can begin to work. Gradually she is able to support her family’s financial needs. They help with the children’s health, educational and psychological issues. In this way, over half the families aided are able to conquer poverty, Andreasyan said.

A new program in this vein with state leadership is now planned in the field of animal husbandry. There are 29,000 families getting aid who are unable to earn enough to support themselves in this field. The government will support an experiment with 1,000 families this year to turn their work more productive and turn this into a state program on a larger scale.

Existing programs are being reexamined with an eye to using resources more effectively, efficiently and humanely. Andreasyan gave the example of four boarding institutions for children at which her ministry takes care of approximately 260 children, and annually expends half a billion dram. The children actually have families, but were sent to these institutions because of the socioeconomic difficulties of the latter. When they turn 18, they are returned to their families and still face the same difficulties.
Instead, Andreasyan said, it would be more humane and effective to return the 260 children to their families and help the latter, spending the same sum of money annual on various services. This sum would be sufficient to maintain services for 4,000 children in 30 large places of population.

US Visit

The purpose of Andreasyan’s visit to the United States was to learn about the methods used by American organizations. Various NGOs, government agencies, academics and health specialists shared their knowledge. Matosian explained that the Women’s Support Center has limited resources, but wanted to support this trip because the Center’s work becomes much easier when the policymaking state body understands the issues in all their aspects. She added, “We are at a turning point now in Armenia because a lot of restructuring is taking place, with new laws and new mechanisms.”

Consequently, the trip in a sense was an investment in the future, she said. Matosian said that they were fortunate that after the revolution, the government gained a good minister of labor and social affairs who previously was a member of the coalition to stop violence against women as an NGO.

Andreasyan exclaimed, “It is very interesting to see what a variety of services exist here.” Matosian interjected that in the US, the organizations providing social services are specialized and fragmented, focusing on domestic violence, sexual assault, poverty, homelessness, or children’s services. She noted, incidentally, that the family structure in Armenia was still strong enough to make homelessness not be a serious problem there.

Andreasyan said that in Armenia, most social issues reach the attention of the state at late stages, requiring great expenditure of resources and uncertain results. Instead, she wanted to see what sorts of services and policies of prevention exist in the US and how the entire system works, in order to see what can be used in Armenia as tools of prevention and early intervention.

She said that it was impressive to see where the American NGOs started and where they are now. She said that, for example, the Cambridge Arlington and Belmont High Risk Assessment and Response Team succeeded in insuring that there have not been any incidents of murder of women in recent years, though the total population in Cambridge, around 700,000, is not a small one. She also liked the model of the Boston Medical Center and the South Boston Community Health Center, which combines social services together with health and even includes a food pantry. Andreasyan said that Armenia needs to think about this approach and expand traditional approaches to public services.

However, she said that in Armenia’s constitution, it is recorded that Armenia is a social state and she said she believed that the systemic solution of social issues is one of Armenia’s priorities. She believes a unified approach is necessary with the role of the state as predominant but finds that much can be learned from the American experience of providing services at the community level. The local community knows the individual the best and physically is closest to him.

She said her view is that there is nothing contradictory in this, as “the state defines the agenda and the policy and in the first stage also promotes the development of services. In the next stage it can ensure community services, directly realizing monitoring and assuring the minimum quality.”

The Armenian state, she said, is trying to expand cooperation with NGOs and provide services through them instead of expanding state agencies. The model she saw in the US, she said, was similar in this sense, with the state allocating grants to organizations which then provide services. This takes advantage of the greater flexibility of the latter, with less bureaucracy. Matosian said that the NGOs work with greater passion and in the past inspired more confidence in the people.

A key issue requiring more resources in Armenia, Matosian said, was training of social workers to deal with all aspects of a person’s problems. The US in this respect has a good model in place.

Education in Armenia

Prior to her new post, Andreasyan worked for many years in different positions at the Center for Education Projects. This center carried out reforms in the educational sphere, in schools and kindergartens, and received funding from the International Bank.

She said, “The issue of the quality of higher education is simultaneously the issue of its structure, the quality of the retraining of its lecturing staff, the review of the contents of the subjects [taught], and of course the participation of student structures in university life.” The center attempted to help the institutions of higher learning make new projects for progress by providing financial grants. They were facing a financial crisis because the numbers of students have been declining and they largely were dependent on student payments. Thus, the existing financial resources were primarily used to satisfy operational needs.

Through the grants, various projects were done in the Yerevan State University, the medical university, the agricultural university, the architectural university and art institutes to establish laboratories and centers with the newest technologies.

The center also tried to increase the international ties of educational institutions, thus providing the possibility of teaching in foreign languages, access to different experiences and a broadening of horizons which is good for both lecturers and students, said Andreasyan.

The center intended to help the Armenian institutions to conduct research and scholarship in addition to pedagogy.

Andreasyan welcomed the student movement which led to students demanding better education in recent years. She said that it is necessary to reevaluate everything and make changes internally. Unions have been created for workers in the educational sphere after the Velvet Revolution. There must be a lecturers’ movement to remove people who do not belong there, or in the administration, Andreasyan said. The educational institutions had become politicized, she continued, but after the revolution there are no such issues so that these institutions can turn into true scholarly and educational centers preparing specialists for the public. At the same time, the internal autonomy of the educational institutions must be protected, she said.

 

 

 

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: