By Jennifer Brookland
Mkhitar Hovhannisyan, mayor of the small village of Gomk in southwestern Armenia, had seen plenty of international development projects come to his town before. One after the other they were planned and built by outsiders, only to fall into disrepair and abandon without the community participation necessary to sustain them.
This time, it was different.
Counterpart International provided Hovhannisyan’s community with a grassroots and community development grant to take on a project they could all get behind.
“When we were deciding on a project, the community had a long wish list but we prioritized a playground where our children could play,” Hovhannisyan said. “Today, Counterpart’s supported playground is our village’s gem. We maintain the upkeep of the playground because our community gathered resources and worked hard to make it a reality.”
The success of the playground and the feelings of ownership and accomplishment led the community to start its next joint effort: renovations of the preschool.
“Through this colorful playground, we learned to mobilize, participate and direct our own future,” said Hovhannisyan.
The real victory
This development of citizen participation and long-term engagement in these communities has been the real victory of Counterpart’s Civil Society and Local Government Support Program (CSLGSP) program in Armenia, according to Armen Gevorgyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Territorial Administration.
The program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is now two years old and at its halfway point. Since October 2010, it has worked in 43 Armenian communities to support participatory, decentralized and responsive local governance that strengthens the democratic process.
To this end it conducted over 435 trainings, many of them geared toward strengthening the capacity of local government representatives.
The program also worked to increase the level of informed and effective civic activism at the local and national levels by building up communities’ ability to plan strategically, partner with local stakeholders, mobilize resources, and work towards sustainable progress on issues they deemed most pressing.
“The success of Armenia’s communities is the success of Armenia as a country, and citizen engagement is the cornerstone of this success” said Alex Sardar, Counterpart’s Chief of Party in Armenia.
The program has engaged more than 6,000 people in Counterpart-sponsored community planning town hall meetings. Ten percent of them remain involved in all the activities.
“That says something about the will of Armenian citizens,” said Sardar.
The program takes special care to engage youth with trainings that mobilize them to volunteer and participate in grassroots activism, instilling in young people a sense of ownership over their futures and those of their communities.
It helped galvanize nearly 45,000 citizens—almost half of who were under 30 years old— to participate in 1,539 events.
Taking stock and looking forward
At The Public Dialogue and Community Development Conference held in the capital of Yerevan on Nov. 2 and 3, more than 600 participants gathered to celebrate these successes, and mark the midpoint of the four-year CSLGSP program.
Counterpart facilitated discussions about citizen volunteerism and grassroots activism, mobilizing external resources for sustained progress, and participatory planning at the community level.
One panel addressed the opportunities and challenges for local governance in Armenia. The country has taken steps over the past 16 years to reform the local governance system and further decentralize, but policies remain incomplete and unconsolidated.
Many small communities lack the financial and human resources and the capacity to effectively self-govern and deliver high-quality municipal services.
Counterpart and USAID set out recommendations for decentralization of power in Armenia in a strategy paper that will assist the government in organizing annual action projects and prioritizing its initiatives.
“It’s time to turn words into action,” said USAID’s Armenia mission director Karen Hilliard in her conference remarks. “We are ready, how about you?”
See photos from the conference, and the ensuing festival celebrating Armenia’s cultural heritage, on the Counterpart-Armenia Facebook page.