Levon Abrahamian
on Abr




Importing Civil Society?

The Emergence of Armenia's NGO Sector and

the Impact of Western Aid on Its Development[*]

 “Civil society” is one of the most overused and least definable terms of the last decade[1]. It has come to signify many things to many people, but whatever it is, it is known more for its absence than for its presence. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the idea of civil society was attractive to many intellectuals in socialist states because it combined democratic pluralism with a continued role for state regulation and guidance, making it seem the right form of social organization for societies seeking to recover from the excesses of state socialism.[2] At that time intellectuals in east central Europe and in some republics of the Soviet Union, including Armenia, thought of civil society as a utopian social movement or an alternative, parallel society coexisting with and opposing the weakened, de legitimized of. cial state.[3] While civil society became a rallying cry against oppressive socialist regimes around Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, the incoherent combination of ideas and idealizations that were gathered under this rubric did not produce concrete programs of action.[4]

Given the flexibility and ambiguity of the term, even the western scholars and policy makers who championed the idea with an evangelical zeal in the late 1980s and early 1990s appear to have been less than sure of what civil society actually was and whether they themselves had it.[5] Anthro­pologists working in various parts of the world have problematized the export of civil society by pointing out that it is not a purely theoretical or politically neutral idea and that it is an ideal of social organization that seems to bear little relation to the current realities of the exporting countries. It is also an ideal that developed in historical conditions that cannot be replicated in any other part of the world today.[6] Some scholars have gone so far as to argue that we are already in a “post–civil society” era, in which civil society is not a possibility.[7] Others simply dismiss it as an inherently polymorphous, inchoate, and unspecifiable signifier.[8] Never the less, in spite of the problems of defining and locating civil society in the West, in the 1990s the idea became a central part of western aid programs to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. United States agencies and other First-World donors embraced the idea of civil-society development as critical to democratization and “successful transition.”[9] It became a new mantra in both aid and diplomatic circles.[10] In the postsocialist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, civil society came to be equated with the development and growth of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Policy makers hailed NGOs as stakeholders in the transition and development of postsocialist countries[11] and the “connective tissue of democratic political culture.”[12] This link between civil society and NGOs is a late-twentieth-century phenomenon and one that should be understood in the context of deregulated and increasingly globalized economies. It is significant because it has led to a phenomenal growth in the number of NGOs in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where democratization and a vibrant civil society have been directly linked to the presence of NGOs.[13] The number of NGOs particularly began to grow once western governments and donors began providing grants to NGOs in the former Soviet Union to implement democratization, civil society, and other such projects. As various scholars have pointed out, these governments and donors had political and social agendas to pursue and this is reflected in the types of projects and issues they promoted.[14]

In this paper I examine the growth of the NGO sector in Armenia in the 1990s and the impact of western aid on its development. I begin by explaining the emergence and attributes of Armenia’s NGO sector and demonstrate how Armenian NGOs mediate between the local and global levels. I argue that, owing to difficult economic conditions in the post-Soviet period, Armenian NGOs continue to rely entirely on western financial support. This dependence compels local groups to give in to donor demands and constantly shift their agendas to meet ever- changing funding initiatives—even when they feel that these initiatives, given the local context, are not the most important. For example, domestic violence became a popular funding initiative among donors during the late 1990s. But domestic violence was not an issue that was readily identified by local women or NGOs in Armenia in the mid-1990s. Indeed, it was not an issue in Armenia before the arrival of feminist and NGO activists and western consultants; they introduced the idea that domestic violence is a social and public problem that must be addressed with the cooperation of law enforcement and judicial bodies. To be clear, I am not arguing that domestic violence does not occur in Armenia. It does, as in every other country in the world. Nor am I saying that individual Armenian women and men are not concerned or should not be deeply concerned about it; it is a serious problem, after all. Rather, I mean that it was not locally recognized as a public or social issue that could be addressed (solved?) with the intervention of law enforcement and judicial bodies, until it was identified as such by western donors and “experts.”

I will situate this discussion within the broader processes of globalization and the advocacy of “global civil society.”[15] By examining how domestic violence became an issue, I will show how NGO-donor relationships shape knowledge production, information circulation, and decision making. My goal is to describe the experiences and actions of NGO members in Armenia. As recipients of the ideas, goods, and capital associated with global civil society, they are not passive consumers who accept these imports automatically and in their “pure” form. Instead, they interpret, criticize, and customize the global to the local. They adapt projects to meet local needs.

What are NGOs?

Whether NGOs are perceived as latter-day evangelists or as manifestations of grassroots democracy, it is clear that in the last twenty years there has been tremendous growth in their number and influence. This is a result of many factors, which include donors’ disillusion with the national governments of developing countries, their belief that civil society is an important part of democratization, and the idea that a “global civil society” will promote more equitable and just economic development and progress. One thing that remains unclear, however, despite the growing body of literature on the topic, is what exactly a nongovernmental organization is. Nongovernmental organizations can engage in charitable, religious, research, human rights, and environmental work. They can range from loosely organized groups with a few unpaid members to organizations with multimillion-dollar budgets, employing hundreds of people all over the world. By this definition, a local bird-watching society, the Ku Klux Klan, and Amnesty International are all NGOs. Most scholars do agree that NGOs (ideally) exist outside both the state (hence nongovernmental) and the market. They are sometimes called third-sector organizations, the third sector being that which lies between the first (governmental) and second (market) sectors. Some NGOs are voluntary groups with no governmental af. liation or support; others are created and maintained by, and loosely linked to, governments. This has led to a proliferation of acronyms, for example GONGOs (governmental nongovernmental organizations) and QUANGOs (quasigovernmental NGOs).

In Armenia, an NGO (or hasarakakan kazmakerputiun) is created by private citizens, has a mission statement and an objective or objectives, and is registered with the Ministry of Justice. Some NGOs have links to government officials or politicians; others do not. They address a wide variety of issues, including human rights, women’s issues, health care, peace, the environment, and cultural preservation. Membership in NGOs ranges from ten members to several thousand. In 1999 there were 2,300 officially registered NGOs. When the government required the reregistration of all NGOs in 1999, only 326 had reregistered as of May 2000.[16] The reasons for this include the fact that many NGOs that registered in the early euphoric rush to “NGOize” (that is, to create NGOs) failed to get grants, were unable to implement their programs successfully, or both, and were thus disbanded in ensuing years. Others, which obtained grants, saw no point in reregistering. One need only scan the lists of grant awardees that are posted on donor websites to realize that time and again the same organizations and individuals were awarded grants, and that only a handful of the 2,300 officially registered NGOs were operating with any consistency. The majority, meanwhile, were NGOs in name only. In short, this drop in the number of officially registered NGOs should not be seen as a decline in NGO activity, but rather as a more realistic portrait of the sector.

The Emergence of Armenia’s NGO Sector and Its Characteristics

The Gharabagh movement, which began in 1988 and culminated in the declaration of Armenia’s independence in September 1991, has been called a renaissance or rebirth of the Armenian people. It was a period when Armenians believed in the ideals of civil society and the possibility of democratizing the Soviet system.

This idealism brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets and squares of Yerevan and made social and political activists out of many apathetic Soviet citizens. This idealism and vigorous social activism were to be shortlived; they were soon replaced by disillusion, apathy, frustration, and dislocation, as Armenia was plunged into a severe period of crisis (chknazham) immediately following the declaration of independence in 1991. The first three years of independence (1992–94) were the most dif. cult: a blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey over the con. ict in Nagorno-Karabakh led to long blackouts, stoppage of state-provided heat and hot water services, and closures of factories and institutes. Without energy, only a tiny number of private enterprises continued to operate, and tens of thousands of state employees were laid off indefinitely. At that time the country’s infrastructure was seriously debilitated and there was mass impoverishment. The situation was exacerbated by the influx of over four hundred thousand ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan who had fled pogroms in Sumgait and Baku, as well as by the critical situation of the tens of thousands of people who were wounded and left

homeless after the 7 December 1988 earthquake in northern Armenia, which

left twenty-five thousand people dead and virtually destroyed the cities of Leninakan

and Spitak. When I conducted my predissertation . eldwork in Armenia in 1993, none of

the individuals I interviewed in the cities of Yerevan and Artik or in the villages of Horom or Anooshavan was interested in social activism. The idealism and spirit of social activism had disappeared, as people were concerned with simply surviving from one day to the next. As one Yerevan resident explained: We were active participants in the 1988 demonstrations. At that time I worked at a paint factory and we used to donate our time and supplies for the movement (sharzhum). I know of many people who were true believers at that time. But now it is just about finding your daily bread and being able to heat one room in your house so that your children don’t freeze to death. (Vartan)[17]

Nearly everyone I spoke to shared this opinion. Given the harsh socioeconomic

conditions in the early post-Soviet years, most people did not have the time or inclination to participate in civic projects. As in Soviet times, the extended family continued to be the primary mode of social protection and form of identification.[18]

In Armenia, without strong family ties people feel isolated, economically vulnerable, marginalized, and unable to advance socially, economically, or politically. So important is one’s dedication to family that it is commonly believed that anyone who engages in volunteer work for the community, as opposed to work for the family, is naive and probably being exploited. Civic organizing or working with strangers for non-family-related causes was not and is not a socially accepted pattern of behavior. (Meanwhile, political activism, particularly activism that is aimed at achieving state power or a political post, is considered to be an acceptable pattern of behavior for men.[19]19 By attaining such positions, men can expect to earn money—legally and/or illegally—and to have greater political influence, which can be used to benefit family members and close friends.)

From Relief to Development: The Beginnings of the NGO Sector

Immediately following the 1988 earthquake, foreign humanitarian relief NGOs arrived to assist earthquake victims. But since Armenia was still a Soviet republic, these organizations generally did not establish resident missions or organize long-range activities. Following independence in 1991, international humanitarian aid NGOs such as CARE, Oxfam, Save the Children, and others established resident missions in Armenia and began to engage in long-term activities. While such transnational, foreign, and Armenian-diaspora organizations were quite numerous in Armenia during these early post-Soviet years, there were only forty-four local NGOs operating in Yerevan in 1994.[20] This soon changed when, beginning in 1994 and intensifying in 1995 and 1996, western governments and international agencies began providing grants to promote civil society and democratization in Armenia. In the 1990s Armenian NGOs received funding directly or indirectly from various donors, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Save the Children, Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, PHARE-TACIS (European Union), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Soros Foundation, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, CARE, World Vision, the Eurasia Foundation, the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and others. Some of these organizations are

governmental agencies (for example, USAID), others are humanitarian organizations

(Oxfam, CARE), and others are af. liated with a religious organization (World Vision). Of these donors, the United States government has been the NGO sector’s largest donor: in the fiscal year 2001 it allocated over $90 million in foreign assistance, $13 million of which was earmarked for democracy and governance activities that are aimed at strengthening NGOs and civil society in Armenia[21]. It is clear from the amount of grants local NGOs receive, however, that only a tiny fraction of the earmarked amount actually gets to local NGOs; the larger proportion is spent on administrative overhead, funding to consultants, travel expenses, and the like. Since Armenians had no prior experience with creating and sustaining NGOs, USAID also funded the opening of the Armenian Assembly of America’s NGO Training and Resource Center (NGOC) in Yerevan in 1994.[22] The opening of the NGOC is the watershed event in the development of Armenia’s NGO sector because it provided locals with a template of how to create a nongovernmental organization and how to seek funding from donors in order to sustain that organization.The NGOC’s primary mission is Supporting individuals and organizations in Armenia as they endeavor to construct the basic building blocks of democracy. . . . By serving vulnerable populations and advocating for citizens’ rights, non-governmental organizations are essential agents of change in creating and strengthening civil societies. The Armenian Assembly of America created the NGOC in 1994 to help Armenians and their fledglings organizations shape positive social, political and economic transformation in Armenia.[23]

To achieve these objectives, the NGOC provides educational and training seminar.

to NGOs on capacity building, member training, partnership development, small grants programs, media outreach, electronic communications, technical assistance, information and research, and legal reform and awareness. The NGOC builds awareness about Armenia’s NGOs through a comprehensive website and by issuing various publications, including the Armenian NGO News in Brief, NGO Gazette, and NGO Profiles. In addition to the training seminars and publications, the NGOC also offers registered NGOs access to phone, facsimile, and electronic mail services.


In Armenia, as in the other states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, NGOs are overwhelmingly led by Soviet-era elites, either intellectuals or former Communist Party apparatchiks who were quick to recognize the potential of NGO-sector participation and to make the transition from state or Communist Party structures to NGOs.[24] For example, the Soviet-era Women’s Council (Zhensovet) became the Women’s Republican Council in the post-Soviet period, with its leader and hierarchical structures intact. Few working-class people or rural residents, or even intellectuals who were not part of the former structures of power, were able to make this transition. In addition to possessing the organizing and language skills, these Soviet elites also had the advantage of belonging to social networks that put them in contact with the foreigners who control or

influence the distribution of grants. Those who made the transition reinvented themselves in order to take advantage of the new opportunities. For instance, they replaced Soviet propaganda with the slogans and propaganda of the West (for example, building democracy by developing NGOs). Individuals who participated in the NGO training programs and seminars learned skills such as grant writing, fundraising, computer use,

media relations, and advertising; they also learned the symbolic orders and discourses

of the NGO world. By mastering NGOspeak or projectspeak, they learned how to communicate effectively with donors.[25] This became an indispensable skill as NGO members discovered the importance of using certain key phrases in their grant proposals to present their organizations, projects, and objectives as a good match with the funding priorities of donors. It is not easy to master these skills, however, and those who did not, either joined other NGOs or left the sector altogether.

Donors prefer professionalized NGOs since these groups have, or can be trained to have, the administrative capabilities that donors need for their own bureaucratic budgets, accounting reports, project reports, and all other documents that bene. ciaries are asked to submit.[26] Less professional, more informal organizations, and poorly connected NGOs are overlooked by donors. This, as Chris Hann argues, preserves and “accentuates previous hierarchies, where almost everything depends on patronage and personal connection.”[27] Only the professionalized and often elite-run NGOs survive, since they have the administrative capacity, the knowledge of grants and international trends, and the social connections that are instrumental to their success. This may sound undesirable,

but it has its good side. Educated professionals are able to maintain a modicum of dignity and a modest standard of living. They do not have to resort to selling cheap wares in metro kiosks or to emigrate to work as babysitters, housekeepers, caretakers, or jewelry sweatshop laborers in Armenian diaspora communities in the West (for example, Los Angeles).[28] This, of course, was not the donors’ intention, but it is one of the more positive outcomes of the development of the NGO sector in Armenia: it has mitigated the brain drain.

Feminization of the NGO Sector

Western aid has feminized Armenia’s NGO sector. Most NGOs in Armenia, like many NGOs in other post-Soviet republics, are run by women.[29] This feminization is due to several factors, the most important of which is donors’ preference in supporting women’s initiatives (for example, gender equality) and women’s organizations.[30] According to the USAID Mission to Armenia Web site, USAID has made a conscience [sic] effort over the years to promote women’s leadership and empowerment through the NGO sector—a

sector in which, in Armenia, women already have an accepted leadership role. Since assistance began, USAID has trained over 81 women NGO leaders. . . . However, the NGO sector is still nascent. NGOs have not yet developed a strong political voice or influence. USAID’s new NGO strengthening program will include support to increase women’s political influence through NGOs.[31]

USAID’s policy of strengthening NGOs and supporting women’s “political voice”and promoting their “empowerment” is shared by other aid organizations. The United Nations Development Program office in Armenia, for instance, has been very supportive of women’s issues throughout the 1990s. Under the leadership of Ms. Katica Cekalovic, the UNDP office in Armenia supported the publication of several groundbreaking reports, including the UNDP Women Status Report Armenia 1999 and the Millennium Gender Report (2001) as well as numerous conferences and seminars dedicated to women’s issues. Armenian Women: At the Doorstep of the XXI Century (2000), another seminal work by local scholars on gender issues, was published with support from the Armenian International Women’ Association, a transnational Armenian women’s NGO based in Boston, Massachusetts.[32] Efforts by diaspora and foreign or international aid organizations aimed at empowering women and increasing their political voice through NGO participation have had quali. ed success because the publication of reports and

the organization of conferences have not led to real changes that affect the daily

life of women. Having to Work at the Global-Local Nexus

The number of women’s NGOs and NGOs led by women in Armenia increased

markedly after the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women

in Beijing.[33] The Beijing conference not only provided local women with an introduction to the international world of NGOs (that is, global civil society) but also stimulated greater funding and interest in the role of women in development. Donors began to say that women were more “cost-effective” as beneficiaries of development and civil-society aid.[34] The Beijing conference was the defining moment in the development of women’s NGOs in Armenia because the women who attended it, either as members of the government delegation or as NGO members, returned to Armenia informed and educated about global gender discourses, issues, and concerns, which they proceeded to translate into the local Armenian context.[35] For example, the Women’s Republican Council won grants from the Eurasia Foundation and the UNDP to host a two-day conference in Yerevan entitled, “Look at the World through Women’s Eyes.” It was held on 27–28

June 1996. The conference aimed to examine the “essential issues and problems impacting women in Armenia, based on the recognized principles of the NGO Forum on Women–Beijing ‘95, UN 4th World Conference on Women.”[36] I attended this two-day conference. Various issues—including women’s role in politics, the economy, and the media—were discussed in the context of local concerns. While certain global-civil-society issues such as domestic violence and human rights were addressed in the four-page conference pamphlet, presumably to appease donors, they were not discussed by any of the speakers at the event.

Donors’ focus on women began in the 1970s when international development agencies began to make “women” visible as a category in development and research policy.[37] This came to be known as the Women In Development (WID) approach. The thinking went thus: if policy makers, donors, and planners could be made to see women’s concrete and valuable contributions to their economies, then women would no longer be marginalized in the development process. This trend became more marked in the 1990s and continues today, as many of the largest donors, including the World Bank, USAID, and various United Nations agencies, have departments focused on gender issues intended to promote gender equality in development or GID—gender in development. Women’s NGOs and

women in NGOs in Armenia recognize the ascendancy of the GID approach and have become quite adept at employing the appropriate discourses. “Talking gender” has become an important factor in winning grants. As one of my informants explained, You learn what the donors fund and then you talk about that in your grant proposal. They all like gender issues (genderi hartser) so women have a better chance at getting grants, as do women’s organizations.(Gohar)

Although many women involved in Armenia’s NGOs freely employ the discourses associated with the GID or global-civil-society positions, this does not mean that Armenian NGOs have a feminist agenda or that members consider themselves feminist. Indeed, they often take offense at being called feminists; most of the active women in the NGOs that I interviewed were keen to point out they are pursuing a nationalist (azgayin) agenda and that their work is more “feminine” (kanatsi) than feminist. The difference is crucial: “kanatsi” denotes a continuation with the past and traditional gender roles and ideologies, whereas the category of “feminist” indicates a break with the traditional. In Armenia, the vilification of feminism is due in part to seventy years of state opposition to

feminism as a bourgeois and counterrevolutionary ideology.[38] But it is also rejected because it is seen as an antifamily ideology. One member of All-Armenian Women’s Union said, We attended the Beijing conference and became acquainted with many

women from other countries and with the issues women face internationally. We saw what we could apply and work on in Armenia. In Armenia our most perplexing issues are of the poverty of women and children who for the most part are refugees or family members of slain veterans. We came to realize that we do not face some of the issues that

women in other countries do. We are not feminists and we don’t address feminist issues; we address issues of the spiritual rebirth (hogevor veratznund) of our nation, the preservation of our rich national culture (harust azgayin mshakuit), and the real life problems faced by the many citizens of our nation who have become impoverished in recent years. (Emilia)

It is evident from these comments that ethnonational identity supersedes gender identity; in this context a woman in Armenia is first and foremost an Armenian, then a woman. This view was shared by all the women I interviewed in the All-Armenian Women’s Union and Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly NGOs as well as by members of the now-defunct Shamiram Women’s Social and Political Party.[39] The women I spoke with contended that it was wrong to separate women’s issues from men’s issues. Armenian female academics (and, of course, female politicians) reinforce this perspective. In the article, “This Is Not About Women’s Struggle, But About Society’s Common Sense,” the chair of the Yerevan State University Department of Sociology, Ludmila Haroutunian, argues

against a feminist approach. She writes, I don’t place the emphasis on the women’s movement, since the woman in Armenian society is the pillar of stability and she does not

have the right to cause a social implosion that will threaten that stability. Especially since our society is under crisis. Simply, it is important to initiate constructive steps to ensure that women play a role in political affairs and governance.[40]

Many women in the NGO sector agree with Haroutunian’s views and want NGOs to be organizations that allow women to pursue critical social, educational, and health care problems, rather than feminist agendas. The women in the NGOs I studied simultaneously presented themselves as the keepers of the proverbial hearth (ochakhe pahogh) and traditionalists, as well as progressive liberals fighting for change. By portraying themselves as traditionalists and as antifeminists, the women appeased local bureaucrats and politicians who resent the entry of women into the public sphere and politics. The use of the neoliberal-inspired western discourses of GID and global civil society, on the other hand, allowed them to secure funding and support from western donors who wished to promote women’s involvement in Armenia’s socioeconomic and political development. The use of these contradictory discourses and the cultural models they represent was reconciled by the women’s portrayal of themselves as reproducers and nurturers of the nation. As Datevik, another member of the All-Armenian Women’s Union told me, “Our goal is not to pursue a divisive feminist agenda, but to work for the good of the entire nation (amboghj azgi hamar).” In describing their NGO/public activities as being extensions of their domestic childrearing and nurturing duties, the women invoked the rhetoric of moral motherhood and insisted that they are participating in the honorable practice of nation building through educating future citizens about the values of democracy, civic responsibility, and self-sufficiency.[41] In addition to the discourses, NGO members also adapt and customize strategies and projects to better correspond to local conditions. For instance, when a nongovernmental organization (which I will not name) received a grant from donors to create a local crisis and skills- training center, in addition to helping any battered women that came to them, they

provided services to everyone in crisis by using a broad definition of the word “crisis.”[42]

The result is a sort of cultural hybridity in practices and discourses that reflects the difficult middle position occupied by NGOs in that they are constantly working between spheres. As intermediaries, NGO members benefit from western aid because it provides them with increased leverage and autonomy at the local level and an ability to continue working in respectable jobs instead of having to do menial, humiliating (by local standards) work. Aid, however is a double-edged sword, and while it provides NGOs with funding and support it also exposes them to foreign direction and control. This

dependency of local NGOs on the “uncertain largess of donors,” as William Fisher calls it, has direct and indirect effects. He describes these as (a) redirecting the accountability toward funders and away from the group’s grassroots constituencies and (b) transforming NGOs into contractors, constituencies into customers, and members into clients.[43] This exposes NGOs to attacks within their own countries, raising questions about whether they truly represent their constituents. It is one of the most diffcult challenges facing Armenian NGOs if they hope to win legitimacy among their own population. If they sacri. ce the local for the global, they are betraying their mission as local organizations. If they ignore the needs and wants of international donors, they risk losing funding that is critical to their survival and success. The issue of domestic violence, which became a popular funding initiative among donors during the late 1990s, illustrates this dilemma.

Is the Personal Political?

Exporting the Domestic Violence Issue

The Armenian authors of the August 1995 United Nations review dedicated to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing wrote: Violence against women, although there are no records kept in Armenia, is a universal phenomenon. Therefore, Armenian women must have experienced some form of violence against them. Reporting of violence is not customary. The definition of violence is not clear. Psychological

violence, violence of sexual nature and physical violence are not clearly

understood or identified or distinguished.[44]

In 1995 and 1996 domestic violence was still a new topic in Armenia’s NGO sector, and to some extent a taboo subject. Women’s NGOs opposed public discussion of what they deemed a private, family issue. In 1996 members of a transnational feminist NGO called the Young Women and Democracy Program (YWDP), which had funding from the European Union’s PHARE-TACIS program, began work in Armenia. They set out to assist in creating a coalition of local women’s NGOs to address the issue of violence against women, together with other women’s empowerment programs. This group had funding to help local NGOs create crisis centers and hotlines, but local groups resisted working with the YWDP. They argued that domestic violence was not the most critical issue facing Armenian women and added, “We don’t air our dirty laundry in public.”

Also in 1996, “Azniv,” an American-Armenian expatriate, created a study group to examine the problems of battered women. Azniv organized several meetings during the spring and summer of 1996 to discuss the issue of domestic violence in Armenia. These meetings were attended by American expatriates working in Armenia and by a few local Armenian scholars. At one meeting, which was held in the cafeteria at the American University of Armenia, one of the American participants suggested that women’s NGOs should be involved, and in fact take the lead, in addressing the issue of domestic violence in Armenia. In response to this suggestion, an American training coordinator at the Armenian Assembly of America’s NGO Center expressed her concern that many women’s NGOs did not want to address this issue and added, “Many of the women’s NGOs do not necessarily address women’s problems and the issue of domestic violence will not be well received by such groups.” Members of various women’s NGOs had

been invited to attend, but none were present at any of the meetings I attended. When I asked one of these women’s NGO members why she did not attend, she replied, “That is not a problem we wish to discuss in public. If [Azniv] wants to do so, it is her choice, but she will not receive any support from us.” (Anahit)

While Azniv’s efforts were well met by the American expatriates and a few local women, nearly all of the women’s NGOs continued to avoid addressing the issue of domestic violence in 1996–97. This situation began to change in 1998–99 when increased funding was made available by international donors for local NGOs to begin addressing the problem of domestic violence. For instance, in 1999 the United States State Department awarded grants to the United States–based NGOs Sister Cities International, Project Harmony, and Winrock International to conduct anti-domestic-violence programs in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Georgia.[45] Winrock International

received a grant of $1,558,656 (duration 1999–2001); Project Harmony received a total of $1,518,442 ($499,548 for 1998–2000 and $1,018,894 for 2000–2002); and Sister Cities International received two grants, amounts not listed on their Web site, to conduct domestic violence prevention programs from 1998 to 2001.[46] In addition to the United States State Department’s domestic violence prevention grants, in 1999 the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) was selected by USAID-Russia to administer the USAID Program to Support Crisis Centers for Women in Russia. This three-year $600,000 program that was aimed at “strengthening and supporting Russian institutions that provide crisis counseling and other services to victims of domestic violence, that raise awareness of domestic violence issues among specialists and the general public, and

that promote alternatives to violence.”[47] Grants ranging from one thousand to ten thousand dollars were awarded to Russian NGOs. While IREX did not provide any grants to Armenian NGOs, its program initiatives are similar to those of other organizations, including the Open Society Institute, the Global Fund for Women, and World Learning, among others, that have awarded grants to local NGOs in Armenia for addressing domestic violence.

In Armenia, Susanna Vardanyan, president of the Women’s Rights Center NGO, has in recent years become the most prominent local advocate of protecting women’s rights and addressing the problem of domestic violence. Initially Vardanyan was the leader of the Hayouhi Women’s Association NGO, whose mission was to “protect women’s rights by extending the role of women in public, social, cultural, and political life.”[48] In 1996 Vardanyan did not attend any of the meetings or seminars organized by Azniv, and only in later years appearsto have became involved in addressing the issue of domestic violence. With this shift in focus, she disbanded the Hayouhi Association and formed the Women’s Rights Center NGO in 1998. At this point, the mission of her new organization

Became To extend the role of women in public, social, cultural, and political life. To promote democratic reform in Armenia. To protect the rights of women and children in accordance with the RoA [Republic of Armenia] Constitution and international treaties. To promote the improvement of women’s state con. rmed by the main provisions of declaration and activities of Women’s 4th International Conference (Beijing 1995).”[49]

The first sentence of the new mission statement is identical to the mission statement

of the Hayouhi NGO. The remaining sentences re. ect how local NGOs often pack their mission statements with a plethora of objectives in order to have the flexibility to apply for a variety of grants and to easily accommodate the shifting discourses, agendas, and funding initiatives of donors. The last sentence in the paragraph confirms my earlier point of how the United Nations conference in Beijing provided women’s NGOs with an introduction to the world of NGOs and a new vocabulary with which they could represent their organizations and activities.

Following this new mission statement, in 2000 the Women’s Rights Center (WRC) published a trilingual (Armenian, Russian, and English) booklet containing the stories of battered women. These stories appear as excerpts from longer interviews, but since they are presented without any context or explanation as to how and where WRC members met these women, how and whether these women have been helped, and what has happened to them since the interview,it is unclear how successful WRC has been in its efforts.

In 2000 Vardanyan also worked with Belinda Cooper and Elizabeth Duban of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, who had traveled to Armenia with the sponsorship of the United States State Department to explore how the Armenian government treats domestic violence and whether Armenia was upholding its international legal obligations with respect to women’s rights. In an Armenian Forum article about their findings, Cooper and Duban argue, “In countries moving out of the Soviet past, defensiveness continues to be the more common response to critical questions.”[50] They add that they found a lack of willingness on the part of state officials and even some human rights NGOs to address the issue of domestic violence. They recognize Armenians’ defensiveness or reluctance in

accepting domestic violence as a social/public issue as being due to the fact that in Armenia domestic violence is still considered a private issue. They write, There are concrete reasons that women do not report abuse, and the obstacles can be overcome. Some of them have to do with the somewhat amorphous concept of “culture,” others with more specific institutional obstacles. Culturally, patriarchal norms in most countries fashion ideas about women’s roles and women’s place. In Armenia, we were frequently told, as in many parts of the world, women’s sphere has traditionally been confined to the home and family, while the man is considered the head of the household. The traditional family structure takes the young bride out of her familiar surroundings and places her in a new family, that of her husband. There she occupies a particularly vulnerable position at the low end of the hierarchy, at the mercy of her husband and his family. Violence is frequently viewed as “normal” and thus accepted by both women and men.[51][emphasis added]

Cooper and Duban’s argument that the “somewhat amorphous concept of ‘culture’” (along with the “more specific institutional obstacles”) impedes the acceptance of domestic violence as a social/public issue is problematic given their simplistic and reductionist view of Armenian culture. They essentialize Armenian society as one in which violence is “viewed as ‘normal’” and where women are “vulnerable,” voiceless individuals who are oppressed by or at the mercy of their husbands and their husbands’ families. In so doing, they reduce the complexities of Armenian women’s lives. By portraying Armenian women as helpless, unenlightened victims who suffer because of their cultural traditions, Cooper and Duban ignore crucial class, educational, and urban-rural differences among Armenian women. Such a representation distorts Armenian women’s multiple realities and reduces them to an undifferentiated category of “oppressed traditional woman.” This tendency, Chandra Mohanty explains, is present

in many accounts that lay claim to representing the challenges facing women in so-called Third-World or developing countries. In these accounts, Mohanty contends, women in developing or Third-World countries are often portrayed as passive victims, with little consideration of either their diversity (in, say, class and education) or their agency.[52] Elizabeth Crewe and Emma Harrison maintain that western development workers and consultants are often inclined to identify culture as an impediment and obstacle to development, social change, and modernization. They write, When development flounders, self-criticism is often limited to an acceptance that insufficient attention has been paid to the recipients of aid. Implicit in this, however, is a tendency to root the explanation in the culture of recipients. Colonial denigration of the ‘customs of the

natives’ may be long gone, but the rei. cation of culture as a ‘barrier to development’ is still common.[53]

Mohanty, Crewe, and Harrison are writing about development and modernization projects that were implemented in Asia, Latin America, and Africa (the traditional sites of Third-World or developing countries). However, because in the post-Soviet period many of the former socialist states are now identified as “developing” countries, women in these countries have had “development encounters” of their own with western development workers, consultants, and “experts.”[54] The implications of the asymmetrical relations between the global and local actors engaged in development encounters cannot be overlooked, given that the power inequalities inherent in these encounters affect the production of knowledge, the circulation of information, decision making, and the outcomes of development or “transition” projects.

The Need for Local Definitions of Problems and Solutions

In Armenia, family is seen as sacred, feminism is resented, and the private realm is seen to be in need of protection from government intervention, not in need of increased intervention. Even if domestic violence is discussed in such public forums as the UNDP Women’s Status Report and the Millennium Generation Gender Studies Report (2001), as the authors of the UNDP report point out, “Public opinion is what matters most [and] unfortunately, the opinion prevails that the family is an entirely private sphere and is not open to public intervention.”[55] While some American feminists recognize that domestic violence was formerly a private issue in the United States, they underestimate the historical, cultural, and social differences that determine how issues are addressed and resolved in different societies.[56] For many women in postsocialist countries, Gal and Kligman argue, the American feminist slogan “the personal is political”[57] was alarming because it sounded as if it would bring not only politics but also the government into

the family, inviting surveillance, corruption, and humiliation into the home, destroying

the “only social arena, despite its actual problems, that seemed to many a realm relatively free of state intrusion.”[58] This politicization, they add, implied that women should criticize their families and perhaps even give up devotion to this one institution that many felt should, ideally, be safe and constant in a changing and highly politicized and volatile world.[59] The same is true in Armenia, especially given how during the seventy years of Soviet rule the authorities unsuccessfully attempted to replace the loyalty of individuals to the family with loyalty to the state and party.

Gregory Massell’s study, The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary

Strategies in Soviet Central Asia, 1919–1929, illustrates the process through

which the Soviet government attempted to penetrate the traditional solidarity

of kinship in this region.[60] In Armenia, these efforts at “breaking the cake of custom,” began in the early 1920s, as the Communist regime identi. ed the traditional Armenian family as a “backward” institution and sought to transform it by dismantling family loyalties.[61] There were two main reasons for this: first, the political imperative to include women in the class war; second, the economic need to draw women into socialized production. To do this the Soviet leadership created the Women’s Division of the Communist Party (Zhenotdel in Russian or Kinbazhin in Armenian]) with the aim of emancipating Armenian women by educating them, encouraging them to take jobs outside the home, and drawing them into the arena of public life.[62]

During the 1920s Kinbazhin workers would select representatives (delegatki) who would visit homes and give women “scienti. c” advice on how to raise children and on simple rules of hygiene. These delegatki would also try to establish rapport with the children of the household and encourage them to report cases of child beating, wife beating, and forced marriages, which Mary Kilbourne Matossian argues, had “immense potentialities for disrupting traditional family patterns.”[63] In addition to Kinbazhin, the Commission for the Improvement of the Way of Life of Women (Kanants Kentsaghe Barelavogh Handznazhogov) was created in 1923 to “advise government organs, conduct propaganda campaigns, offer legal advice to women, and provide an ‘inspection service’ to see

that Soviet legislation regarding the family and traditional offenses was put into effect.”[64] These and other intrusive Soviet institutions and practices were resented and resisted with the paradoxical effect of strengthening family and kinship networks. Family not only became a mode of resistance to the state, but also remained as the primary means of identi. cation, support, and advancement during the Soviet period.[65]

In the post-Soviet period, family and kinship networks continue to be vitally important not only for career advancement but also for sheer physical survival. The policy recommendations regarding domestic violence are viewed by many Armenians as quite similar to Soviet practices in that they invite government intervention into private family affairs. Therefore, Armenian NGOs cannot address the domestic violence issue in the same way as it is addressed in the United States and elsewhere in the West. They must work in the local context, with its own expectations, cultural beliefs, traditions, and history. This is not to say that there is no problem of domestic violence in Armenia, because there is, but rather to emphasize the need to identify local approaches and solutions. Solutions suggested by foreign consultants and experts are not practical, given that they were developed in vastly different settings. For example, while crisis shelters

have been successful in Duluth they have not been successful in the former Soviet republics. They worked in the United States where there is a welfare system that includes some provisions, albeit inadequate, for public assistance, unemployment benefits, health insurance, subsidized housing, and free schooling, and where the unemployment situation is not as grim as in Armenia or other former Soviet countries. In Armenia these conditions and state structures are either not present or are not functioning. All that a crisis center can do in Armenia is to provide counseling, which itself is a highly suspect approach to solving problems in Armenia. Crisis centers cannot provide much pragmatic assistance. Similarly, while telephone hotlines may work in San Francisco, they are not

successful in Armenia because phone lines do not work (or exist in some rural areas), because making calls costs money (there are no toll-free numbers operating in Armenia), and because many of the most vulnerable and poorest women do not even have phones in their homes. Cooper and Duban also recognize that hotlines were created “in response to the particular interests of foreign funding agencies” and that they are of “variable value.”[66]

Finally, let us turn to Cooper and Duban’s favored solution, legal reform. While legal reform is certainly an important step in addressing domestic violence, in Armenia it is more a formality than a realistic solution to the problem. Even in the United States, where there is ample anti-domestic-violence legislation, Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, the authors of the Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence, report that “most intimate partner victimizations [in the United States] are not reported to police. . . . The majority of victims who did not report their victimization to the police thought the police would not or could not do anything on their behalf. These findings suggest that

most victims of intimate partner violence do not consider the justice system an appropriate vehicle for resolving conflicts with intimates.”[67] Tjaden and Thoennes add, “When one looks at prosecution statistics, it is clear that these fears are well founded given that only 7.3% of the women who were physically assaulted said their attacker was criminally prosecuted.”[68] These findings indicate that many victims of intimate-partner violence in the United States do not consider the justice system as a viable remedy at the time of their victimization. The existence of laws does not automatically mean people use

them or that laws help them in any meaningful way. Hence, promoting legal reform as “the most important step” in addressing domestic violence in Armenia will not alleviate the conditions or reform the beliefs that go with domestic violence. Instead, it will be akin to trying to cure cancer with a Band-Aid.[69]

While most of the NGO members I interviewed during research trips in 1999 and 2000 said they believed that domestic violence and sexual trafficking (the newest issue among donors) were serious problems in Armenia, they also maintained that these were not the most serious problems facing Armenians. Members of NGOs argued that these were symptoms of more fundamental problems in Armenian society, including unemployment, poverty, and the disruption of society and family life caused by the mass emigration of Armenians who were fleeing Armenia in search of jobs and wages. They argued that the problems of domestic violence and trafficking should not be addressed in isolation.

A recent World Bank report on poverty in the former Soviet Union recognizes

the detrimental impact of poverty: As jobs are lost and hidden unemployment grows, these sources of support—psychological and otherwise are breaking down. The poor expressed deep distress that their knowledge, skills, and formal and informal

competences have become irrelevant. They feel they have lost their sense of belonging to society and are no longer necessary to anyone. Their sense of personal failure, together with the loss of respected social roles and identities, has frequently given way to a paralyzing sense of shame and depression. Increased alcohol consumption, family tensions, and higher suicide rates are some of the manifestations of increased psychological and social stress that has surfaced in consultations with the poor. The psychological pain is as devastating as the material hardship.[70] [emphasis added]

While local NGO members think that it is critically important to address the issue of poverty and unemployment and that addressing these issues will solve the sexual trafficking problem and decrease the incidence of domestic violence, as has been noted by other scholars of western aid to the former Soviet Union, these basic issues of daily survival (jobs, living wages, and the like) are unpopular with donors, who have their own agendas and funding priorities.[71]

Donors consider domestic violence and now, increasingly, sexual trafficking as important issues, and local NGOs acquiesce in order to get funds. And precisely because the issue of domestic violence as well as the solutions (unmodified replicas of western hotlines and crisis centers) do not resonate with local NGO actors as much as they do with donors, when donors’ agendas shift, local NGOs will abandon domestic violence in favor of newer funding priorities. This situation exists in other republics of the former Soviet Union. For example, Julie Hemment describes how members of the Russian women’s NGO Zhenskii Svet were concerned that funders were moving away from supporting the theme of nasilie (violence) and toward the new theme, torgovlia liud'mi (trafficking), and explains their frustration of having “to be like chameleons” to keep up with the changing

demands and funding priorities of donors.[72] Discussing international donors’ interest in addressing sexual trafficking and domestic violence in Georgia, Lara Olson writes, “While these are very serious problems, many local women activists do not see them as the key issues for women in Georgian society. In their view, the reason for the focus on these issues is that they fit the priorities and agendas of the agencies that are now present there.”[73] As Nina, an All-Armenia Women’s Union member, said, In theory they are helping, but in reality they are also doing a great deal of harm. They turn people into beggars and when they talk about personal initiative and entrepreneurship, that is just lip service since we aren’t able to implement the projects we think are important. We have to implement the projects that donors think are important. So I ask you, where is the personal initiative in this if we can’t decide what are the most important problems in our own country?

These sentiments were also expressed by NGO members interviewed by researchers

with the United States–based World Learning NGO. One respondent said, “It would be much better if development agencies would ask NGOs what to focus on!” Another added, “In reality, donors fail to understand the basic problems of Armenian society. The donors provide money to sometimes useless and unimportant programs.” In summing up, the researchers note that this complaint that donors do not listen to local NGOs was common among those interviewed.[74]

If NGOs, for reasons of economic dependency, are compelled to address issues that are deemed important by donors, to constantly keep up with the shifting demands of these donors, and to address issues in the paradigms suggested by donors, will they ever be able to meet the needs of their local constituents? It is unlikely. If the situation continues unchanged, it will bring local NGOs into disrepute, because, in order to keep up with the demands of donors, they shift priorities and address issues not recognized locally as being of the utmost importance. This tendency will intensify the existing disillusion with democratization and civil society, and will increase the emerging corruption (grantakerutiun or grant-eating) in the sector.[75]


In discussing the postsocialist states in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Sue Bridger and Francis Pine argue that most policy makers and donors examine the macro level of development, apply classic market models, and believe that progress (that is, transition) can only be made, and the situation of the people at large improved, after severe and drastic measures of restraint have been implemented and followed.[76] They acknowledge the current popular rejection in many postsocialist societies of “shock therapy,” liberal democracy, and market reform, and argue, “Populations throughout the former socialist countries have disconcertingly failed to be grateful for the advent of consumerism and western-style consumption. Instead, the rise of erstwhile Communist

candidates and parties has reflected a mood in the electorate that tends almost towards protectionism. Hence we are witnessing the disappointment at the failure to arrive at the new Promised Land, resentment at the promotion of an ideology of self-interest and distaste at the shift towards ever-increasing gulfs between the rich and poor.”[77]

Armenians have come to blame not only the messengers (reformers, new capitalists, foreign experts, et al.) for their problems, but also the message itself, which is democracy. They view increased poverty, social polarization, unemployment, and emigration not as signs of positive or sustainable development, but rather as the antidevelopmental and regressive consequences of the “transition.” Many NGO members I interviewed said Armenia was far more industrialized in the Soviet period and has been the victim of “Third-Worldization” programs by the West. They point to closed factories, institutes, and laboratories and to the resulting brain drain as evidence that Armenia is becoming (or already is) a Third-World nation.[78] Armenians have very high levels of literacy, professional experience and training, and knowledge of the world, and they resent the patronizing attitude of western consultants who propose programs that have

little relevance to local conditions, culture, history, and traditions. Scholars studying other postsocialist states have also documented local complaints of de-development, de-modernization, Third-Worldization, and reprimitivization, and have noted how members of these societies do not appreciate being recast as “backward” by donors and their “experts.”[79] Katherine Verdery contends that since the demise of communism, western capitalist societies have come to believe that they have a monopoly on truth and can therefore dispense wisdom about how to build the “proper” forms of democracy and capitalism.[80] Janine Wedel describes this as the “triumphalist” attitude of the West, which had just won the Cold War, and writes, “At first glance, the reasons for assisting the Second World appeared to be much the same as those for aiding the Third World: to hold communism at bay, to ensure economic and political stability, and to create markets for the West. But aid to the Second World was about more than just keeping those nations out of the clutches of communism. It was about exorcizing the legacies of communism itself.”[81] Aid practioners continue to disregard local knowledge, not only because they consider it inferior, but also because they think it is tainted by communism.

This disregard is a product as well as a reflection of the asymmetrical nature of donor–NGO recipient relationships that produces inequalities in knowledge production, information circulation, and decision making. Nongovernmental organizations in Armenia address a wide spectrum of issues, including cultural preservation, refugee issues, education, and health care, but the most viable NGOs have been those that address issues that appeal to foreign donors (for example, democracy building, human rights, gender inequality, and trafficking). This focus diverts valuable human and financial resources from problems identified by locals, such as poverty, unemployment, education, health care, and the situation of orphans and war widows.

Scholars of development, including Arturo Escobar, William Fisher, James Ferguson, Naila Kabeer, and Jonathan Crush, have argued that to truly make development (in this case “transition”) work, it is necessary to allow locals to define the problems and search for local solutions, and not to compromise the agency and ability of local groups in determining their own development and political agendas.[82] The tendency of donors to shift funding priorities compromises the ability of local NGOs to implement long-term programs, since groups are constantly having to shift and adapt their discourses and projects to meet the changing funding priorities of donors instead of the needs of their local communities. Anthropologists have been writing about the problems of international aid and development for the last fifty years and about the need to address local concerns in development.[83] In a recent issue of Cultural Anthropology (May 2002), Paul Rabinow discusses the role of anthropologists in studying the “market in transnational humanitarianism” of which NGOs are both producers and consumers.[84] He examines the hegemony of human-rights discourse and questions whether there is in fact a dominant . gure of morality, adding, “if right discourses have been around for centuries, and are natural, God-given or merely self-evident, then how is it that protection at the scale of ‘humanity’ has not been previously invented?”[85] Rabinow considers that the fall of the Soviet Union led to the idea of a “single human-rights culture in the world.” Discourses concerning global civil society or human rights are not rooted in longstanding beliefs and practices in a defined community, he adds, but instead belong to the United Nations and to western-based NGOs.[86]

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe international NGOs in the current period of globalization as “powerful pacific weapons of the new world order,” adding, “These NGOs conduct ‘just wars’ without arms, without violence, without borders. Like the Dominicans in the late medieval period and the Jesuits at the dawn of modernity, these groups strive to identify universal needs and defend human rights. Their modern universalism operates both at the level of rights and at the level of the most basic needs of life.”[87] Referencing Foucault, Hardt and Negri portray NGOs as part of the biopolitical power (or biopower) of empire, in which they are the “capillary ends of the contemporary networks of power,” since their political action rests on a universal moral call.[88] They argue against unequivocal acceptance of a global order and ask who will decide on the

definitions of justice and order. Sonia E. Alvarez also warns against uncritically extolling the virtues of global civil society. She maintains that global civil society is “a terrain mined with highly unequal relations of power,” pointing out that some NGO professionals, feminist consultants, and theorists have ready access to knowledge production, information circulation, and funding, as a result of which in recent years battles are being waged within women’s organizations in Latin America over the meanings of “citizenship,” “development,” “the family,” and “gender.”[89] Similar battles take place in Armenia, where issues such as domestic violence and sexual trafficking engender debates about the meanings of “family,” “gender roles,” “citizenship,” “culture,” “traditions,” and “human rights.” These debates will continue as long as local NGOs solely depend on western donors for their support.

In this paper I have demonstrated that Armenia’s NGO sector in the 1990s was and still is shaped by donors’ initiatives and funding strategies. The elitecentrism of western donors has selected the type of people who establish and operate NGOs; the focus on Gender in Development has shaped the projects and discourses of these groups. Regardless of what locals define as important problems, donors’ initiatives continue to influence and shape the work of Armenian NGOs. On the other hand, NGO members, while affected by the policies and strategies of donors, are not passive consumers; they are cultural interpreters

who customize global discourses and projects to better serve local needs. Is it then possible to so arrange matters that local NGOs will be able to cut down on the “customizing” and straightforwardly address local concerns? The answer is a qualified “yes.” Given the dire economic situation of the country, the extent of governmental

corruption, the damaged infrastructure, the threat of renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the lack of local confidence in the utility of NGOs, these organizations face a difficult road ahead.[90] At the same time, because some NGOs and their leaders have understood the importance of citizen activism and have implemented various important projects in recent years (among them the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly projects to provide skills training for refugees, the Armenian American Mammography University Center’s programs that provide free or low-cost mammograms, and the Mission Armenia that provides hot meals to elderly citizens), their successes will become significant examples for the future development of NGOs in Armenia. It will also be necessary to make the case that NGOs, while certainly not panaceas, are important actors in the

democratization of Armenian society. This will only happen if local NGOs are seen to address locally de. ned problems and to be accountable to the people and communities they serve. Efforts are underway to locally fund NGOs. For instance, the NGOC, which is funded by diaspora and foreign donors, now has a largely Armenian staff. In addressing the problem of donor-driven development, the NGOC has issued the following statement on its website: “While NGOs in Armenia readily identify the crucial issues in their communities and devise strategies to address them, they frequently lack the resources to implement projects.” The NGOC’s answer has been to provide small grants to NGOs from its own budget (over $458,000—140 grants—have been given to Armenian NGOs since 1994) to “enable Armenian organizations to rebuild, support, preserve and educate their communities through such activities as delivering elderly home-care services, providing consumer protection information, operating daily arts classes for orphans, helping to rebuild earthquake-ravaged communities, monitoring elections, developing and promoting a national program on diabetes, defending the rights of refugees, protecting fragile ecosystems, and drafting laws.”[91] This is an important first step, albeit by a foreign- and diaspora-funded organization, but it is indicative of what needs to occur if Armenian NGOs are to become active participants in the country’s future development. Yet, as it stands today, much remains to be done, and only time will tell whether NGOs will become locally sustainable, and what role they will play in Armenia’s future.


[1] This article is based on fieldwork conducted in Armenia between 1993 and 2000 with local nongover­n­men­tal organizations including the All-Armenia Women’s Union, the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, the Wo­men’s Republican Council, and the Shamiram Women’s Social and Political Party. I would like to thank the National Research Council, the International Research and Exchanges Board, the Academy of Edu­cational Development, the International Research Program for Anthropological Research in the Cau­ca­sus, and the University of California, San Diego, Department of Anthropology for their generous support, which allowed me to conduct research in Armenia. I would also like to thank F. G. Bailey, Rebecca Kay, Ju­lie Hemment, Michele Rivkin-Fish, Kathleen Kuehnast, and Carol Nechemias for their insightful com­ments, suggestions, and advice in preparing an earlier draft of this paper. A signi. cantly shorter version of this paper was presented at “One Ring to Rule Them All? Power and Power Relations in East European Po­li­tics and Societies,” a conference held at the University of California, Berkeley, 8–10 November 2002.

[2]Krishan Kumar, “Civil Society: An Inquiry into the Usefulness of a Historical Term,” British Journal of Sociology 44, no. 3, p. 375.

[3] In his article, Kumar (ibid., p. 386) is referring to the leaders of the Solidarity movement in Poland, but many of the same things may be said of the leaders of the Gharabagh movement in Armenia. The intellectuals who led the Gharabagh Committee not only opposed various policies of the corrupt Soviet Armenian state and sought to reform it, but they also, on several occasions, disrupted official celebrations by using those occasions to present their objections to the state’s policies. Michael Fischer and Stella Grigorian describe the Gharabagh Committee’s disruption of the official 7 November commemoration of the October Revolution in

Lenin Square
as a “seizure of symbolic power.” Michael M. J. Fischer and Stella Grigorian, “Six to Eight Characters in Search of Armenian Civil Society amidst the Carnivalization of History,” in Perilous States: Conversations on Culture, Politics,and Nation, ed. George Marcus (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 84. In this “seizure of symbolic power,” the speakers and demonstrators turned their backs on the Communist leaders standing on the dais in order to express their rejection of the official stance on the Gharabagh issue. A couple of weeks later, on 24 November 1988, the Gharabagh movement leaders collected the required number of deputies’ signatures to have the right to call an extraordinary session of the Supreme Soviet. Although the Communist authorities banned the session, the movement de. ed them and called an alternative extraordinary session, to be held in
Theater Square
. According to Levon Abrahamian, the deputies were asked to gather at the Opera House in the square; some deputies did not show up, and the “hunt for deputies” peaked on that same day. The people in the movement, Abrahamian argues, were absolutely convinced that when a legitimate session was called, the deputies should not refuse to participate in it. Levon Abrahamian, “Civil Society Born in the Square: The Karabagh Movement in Perspective,” in The Making of Nagorno-Karabagh: From Secession to Republic ed. Levon Chorbajian (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 129–130.

[4] There are various understandings or conceptions of “civil society.” According to Perry Anderson, for instance, civil society is a “a necessary practico-indicative concept, to designate all those institutions and mechanisms outside the boundaries of the State system proper. . . . Its function is to draw an indispensable line of demarcation within the politico-ideological superstructures of capitalism.” But lately, Kumar argues, there has been a tendency among scholars influenced by Gramsci and Althusser to stress the specifically noneconomic dimension of civil society and to instead identify civil society as consisting of the civic, cultural, educational, religious, and artistic organizations that are not directly related to the system of production. Meanwhile others, such as John Keane, view civil society as a means for the establishment of a political society based on the principles of citizenship, rights, democratic representation, and the rule of law. Keane suggests that civil society and the state are not two separate entities, but rather the conditions of each other’s democratization. Kumar, “Civil Society,” pp. 383–87.

[5] John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Civil Society and the Political Imagination in Africa: Critical Perspectives (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999), p. vii.

[6] Susan Gal and Gail Kligman, Politics of Gender After Socialism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 000); Sonia E. Alvarez, Evelina Dagnino, and Arturo Escobar, Culture of Politics/Politics of Cultures (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998); Chris Hann and Elizabeth Dunn, Civil Society: Challenging Western Models (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 7.

[7] Michael Hardt, “The Withering of Civil Society,” Social Text 14, no. 4 (1995), p. 27. 8 Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture 3 (2000), p. 331.

[8]Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture 3 (2000), p. 331.

[9] The term “transition” has been problematized by various scholars including Michael Buroway, Katherine Verdery, and Barbara Einhorn, who argue that “transition” implies an evolutionary development that has a single, well-defined objective and trajectory.

[10] Maria Ottaway and Thomas Carothers, Funding Virtue: Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment, 1998), p. 6.

[11] World Bank, Armenia Country Assistance Strategy Report, no. 22111-AM, 25 April 2001.

[12] Janine Wedel quoted in Chris Hann, “Introduction,” in Civil Society, ed. Hann and Dunn, p. 1.

[13] Ibid., p. 7.

[14] Marta Bruno, “Playing the Co-operation Game,” in Surviving Post-Socialism: Local Strategies and Regional Responses in Eastern Europe, ed. Sue Bridger and Frances Pine (London; Routledge, 1997), p. 186; Katherine Verdery, What Was Socialism and What Comes Next? (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), p. 205.

[15] “Global civil society” is difficult to define. It is used to refer to the type of work conducted by, and the discourses related to the growing number of NGOs that are active in the international arena. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2000); Sonia E. Alvarez, “Latin American Feminisms ‘Go Global’: Trends of the 1990s and Challenges for the New Millenium,” in Culture of Politics/Politics of Culture.

[16] World Learning, “Armenia NGO Sector Assessment,”

, p. 15.

[17] Following anthropological conventions, I have used pseudonyms in the place of the real names of individuals who are not public figures.

[18] According to the 1996 UNDP Armenia Human Development Report, in 1995 nearly one out of five registered residents of Armenia was living abroad temporarily or permanently; moreover, every fifth family (out of 1000 families interviewed) reported having received assistance from relatives and friends in the previous month. These remittances have helped tens of thousands of Armenian families survive the dif. cult economic conditions in Armenia. On average, during the 1990s Armenians living abroad sent around $350 million annually to family and friends in the homeland. In 1998 this . gure represented almost nineteen percent of the gross domestic product ($1.85 billion) in Armenia. From the Armenpress report, “$350 Million Enters Armenia as Financial Aid to Some Armenian Residents,” 1 Dec. 1997, cited in Stephan Astourian, “From Ter-Petrosian to Kocharian: Leadership Change in Armenia” (Berkeley: Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies Working Paper, 2001), p. 42. However, because the hundreds of millions of dollars were sent in $100–$500 increments by over seven hundred thousand people a month, the impact of remittances on the Armenian economy has been uneven. Most recipients have used the remittances to survive from one month to the next; they have not been able to save the remittances in order to invest in business ventures that would provide longer-term earnings.

[19] While men are expected to pursue political careers and become politically active members of their communities, women are expected to stay away from politics because such work is considered inherently corrupt and dirty.

[20] Armenian Assembly Factbook, 1994, pp. 54–59.

[21] World Learning, “Armenia NGO Sector Assessment,” p. 11.

[22] The Armenian Assembly of America is a nonpro. t organization established in 1972 and headquartered in

Washington, D.C. The Assembly promotes public awareness of Armenian issues, encourages greater Armenian- American participation in the American political process, and assists in humanitarian and development programs in Armenia. See .

[23] Armenian Assembly NGO Center Web site at .

[24] David M. Abramson, “A Critical Look at NGOs and Civil Society as Means to an End in Uzbekistan,” HumanOrganization 58 (1999), no. 3, pp. 240–50; Julie Hemment, “The Price of Partnership: The NGO, the State, the Foundation, and its Lovers in Post-Communist Russia,” in The Anthropology of East Europe Review 18 (2000), no. 1, p. 35; Sara D. Phillips, “NGOs in Ukraine: The Makings of a ‘Women’s Space?’” ibid., p. 23; Steve Sampson,“The Social Life of Projects: Importing Civil Society to Albania,” in Civil Society, ed. Hann and Dunn, p. 123.

[25] Sampson, “The Social Life of Projects,” p. 123; Gal and Kligman, Politics of Gender After Socialism, p, 96.

[26] Ottaway and Carothers, Funding Virtue, p. 13.

[27] Quoted in Janine R. Wedel, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, 1989–1998 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), p. 114.

[28] I discuss the reasons for and consequences of post-Soviet labor migration in “Mobile Motherhood: Armenian Women’s Labor Migration in the Post-Soviet Period,” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies (forthcoming).

[29] Democracy Union, Women in Armenia (Yerevan: Democracy Union, 1996), p. 4. Andrea Berg, “Two Worlds Apart: The Lack of Integration between Women’s Informal Networks and Non-Governmental Organizations in Uzbekistan,” in Post-Soviet Women Encountering Transition, ed. Kathleen Kuehnast and Carol Nechemias (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, forthcoming); Lara Olson, “Women and NGOs: Views from Some Con. ict Areas in the Caucasus,” Occasional Paper from the Women in International Security “New Bridges to Peace” Workshop, ; Nayereh Tohidi, “Women, Islam, and Democratization in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan,” in Post-Soviet Women Encountering Transition.

[30] There are several factors that contribute to the feminization of the NGO sector in Armenia. First, the removal of the Soviet-era quota system led to a sharp decline in the number of women in of. cial positions; women had been crucial in the independence movement, participating in the demonstrations, work stoppages, and hunger strikes, making speeches, and collecting money for the effort; once independence was achieved, however, women found themselves excluded from the new government. Nongovernmental organizations became a popular path for public participation for the women who were excluded from the political parties and government positions. Second, men initially demonstrated little interest in the nongovernmental sector, since any man who wishes to be active in political or public life can do so through the government or political parties. In addition, men generally regarded the rewards of NGO participation, in terms of grants and microcredit programs, too small, and the bureaucratic details of operating an NGO, too numerous. Men preferred the business sector, where they felt they could make more money. Finally, because NGOs are nongovernmental and nonpolitical (to some extent), most women view them as a

better alternative for public participation than political parties, which are seen as inherently dirty and corrupt. For more on this see Armine Ishkanian, “Working at the Local-Global Intersection: The Challenges Facing Women in Armenia’s NGO Sector,” in Post-Soviet Women Encountering Transition.

[31] United States Agency for International Development, Mission to Armenia, Gender Issues Web page,


[32] In 1994, 1997, and 2000, AIWA sponsored international conferences on Armenian women’s issues. These conferences are organized by and for elite Armenian women in the diaspora and Armenia. The . rst conference was held in London, the second, in Paris, and only the third was held in Yerevan.

[33] The three key themes at Beijing were equality, peace, and development. Some critics argue that the conference was divided along class, racial, and ethnic lines, and that women from the North were often concerned with their own debates on issues and were unable to understand the position of their counterparts from the South. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak criticizes the Beijing conference as nothing more than “global theater.” She argues that these theaters are staged to demonstrate joint participation between the North and South, whereas the North organizes the South. She identi. es a new group of activists as “feminist apparatchiks” who identify conference organizing with activism and are not genuine activists. Spivak, “‘Woman’ as Theatre: Beijing ’95,” Radical Philosophy 75, January/February 1996, p. 2.

[34] Mayra Buvinic, et al., Investing in Women: Progress and Prospects for the World Bank (Washington, D.C.: Overseas Development Council in Cooperation with the International Center for Research on Women, 1996), p. 13.

[35] Scholars working in Asia and Latin America have also documented the impact of United Nations conferences on local women’s organizing and discourses. For instance, according to Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, anticipation of the 1975 United Nations conference in Mexico City on women played a “catalytic role in the emergence of the contemporary women’s movement in India.” Katzenstein, quoted in Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 91. Sonia E. Alvarez describes the Beijing conference as an effusive celebration of “global sisterhood,” adding that it was the site where professionalized, thematically specialized, and transnationalized feminist NGOs focused their energies on influencing the International Platform for Action and in helping articulate the “global women’s lobby.” Alvarez refers to this professionalization and specialization of women’s groups as the “NGOization” of the Latin American women’s movements. Alvarez, “Latin American Feminisms,” pp. 293–96.

[36] Women’s Republican Council, “Look at the World Through Women’s Eyes” conference program.

[37] Naila Kabeer, Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought (London: Verso, 1994), p. xi.

[38] Mary Buckley, Women and Ideology in the Soviet Union (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989). This is not just the case in the former Soviet states. In east central Europe, Gal and Kligman maintain, men and women treat “feminism” with ridicule and derision in public forums and view it as a controversial concept. Politics of Gender After Socialism, p. 98.

[39] The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, a peace and human rights NGO, and the All-Armenian Women’s Union are both led by women; the . rst is led by former member of Parliament Anahit Bayandur, and the second, by Ludmilla Ter-Petrossian, the wife of the former president of Armenia. I conducted research on these organizations and their provincial chapters in 1996–97, 1999, and 2000. I conducted research on the Shamiram Party in 1996 only.

[40] Ludmila Haroutunian, “Kanants paikari masin che khoske, ail hasarakutian voghjakhohutian,” in Kanaik

Hayots: Nor Dari Shemin (Yerevan: Yerevan State Univ., 2000). pp. 21–23.

[41] The concept of moral motherhood dates from the late nineteenth century, when women in the United States and Europe argued that they had the right to enter the public sphere since they were promoting “good social housekeeping.” Women in other societies have used similar strategies to justify their entry into public life. Micaela Di Leonardo, Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1991), p. 16.

[42] I have chosen not to give particulars about this NGO because it may endanger them in terms of receiving future grants.

[43] William Fisher, “Doing Good? The Politics and Anti-Politics of NGO Practices,” Annual Reviews in Anthropology 26 (1997), p. 454.

[44] United Nations Department of Public Information, United Nations Review, Yerevan, August 1995.

[45] See the State Department Web site, at .

[46] See the Web sites of Winrock International, , and Project Harmony, .

[47] See the IREX Web site, at .

[48] Armenian Assembly of America, Karabagh and Armenia Factbook (Washington, D.C., 1996), p. 69.

[49] See .

[50] Belinda Cooper and Elizabeth Duban, “Respecting Women: Domestic Violence in Armenia,” Armenian Forum 2, no. 3 (published 2001), pp. 77–90.

[51] Ibid., p. 80.

[52] Chandra T. Mohanty, Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1991).

[53] Emma Crewe and Elizabeth Harrison, Whose Development? An Ethnography of Aid (London: Zed Books, 1998),p. 15.

[54] In 1990 Armenia ranked forty-seventh on the Human Development Index (HDI), as calculated by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and was considered a “developed” country. In 2002, ten years after independence, Armenia was ranked seventy-sixth out of 173 countries, and was listed in the “Medium Human Development” category. Eleven of the other . fteen former Soviet republics are also included in this category and as such are considered “developing” countries. Life expectancy at birth, the rate of adult literacy, the ratio of primary, secondary, and tertiary enrollments, and per-capita gross domestic product are factors used by the UNDP to calculate scores and rank nations on the Human Development Index. Armenia, which ranks in the middle between Norway (number 1) and Sierra Leone (number 173), is actually much closer to Norway in the categories of life expectancy (72.9 years in Armenia, vs. Norway’s 78.5), adult literacy (98.4 percent vs. Norway’s 100 percent), and educational enrollment (80 percent vs. Norway’s 97 percent). Armenia falls into the “developing country” category because of its low gross domestic product per capita ($2,559 vs. Norway’s $29,918). The gross domestic product is calculated based on World Bank economic statistics that are converted into a common currency. This results in the purchasing power parity rate, which compares prices, purchasing power, expenditures, income, inequality, and poverty among different countries. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2002: Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World (New York and Oxford:

Oxford Univ. Press, 2002).

[55] UNDP Women Status Report (Yerevan: United Nations, 1999), p. 47.

[56] Nancy Fraser, “The Uses and Abuses of French Discourse Theories for Feminist Politics,” Boundary 2 (Summer 1990), p. 85. Fraser argues that even in the United States, feminists had an uphill struggle in making domestic violence a public issue. She writes, “Until recently, feminists were in the minority in thinking that domestic violence was a matter of common concern and thus a legitimate topic of public discourses. The great majority of people considered this issue to be a private matter between what was assumed to be a fairly small number of heterosexual couples.”

[57] In the American context this motto has a different meaning and challenges patriarchal notions of what is

appropriate and legitimate for public discussion.

[58] I use this example because Armenia shared similar experiences and oppression under the socialist regime as the states in Eastern Europe. Gal and Kligman, Politics of Gender After Socialism, p. 101.

[59] This resistance to politicizing the personal has also been noted by scholars of Third-World feminism such as Aida Hurtado, who argue that the “personal is political” slogan does not apply equally to all communities. She writes, “Women of Color have not had the benefit of the economic conditions that underlie the public/private distinction. Instead the political consciousness of women of Color stems from awareness that the public is personally political. . . . There is no such thing as a private sphere for people of Color except that which they manage to create and protect in an otherwise hostile environment.” Aida Hurtado, quoted in Mohanty, Third World Women, p. 9.

[60] Gregory Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia, 1919–1929, (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975).

[61] Mary Kilbourne Matossian, The Impact of Soviet Policies in Armenia (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1962), p. 61.

[62] Ibid., p. 63.

[63] Ibid., p. 66.

[64] Ibid., p. 67.

[65] Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1993).

[66] Duban and Cooper, “Respecting Women,” p. 86.

[67] Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2000), p. v. This report presents the . ndings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. Both the survey and report were cosponsored by the National Institute of Justice (the research agency of the Department of Justice) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[68] Ibid., p. 52.

[69] This metaphor was initially used by L. Beneria and G. Sen to critique the ef. cacy of teaching women in developing countries better techniques as a way to promote their inclusion in their national economies (Quoted in Kabeer, Reversed Realities, p. 11).

[70] World Bank, Making the Transition Work for Everyone: Poverty and Inequality in Europe and Central Asia (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2000), p. 2.

[71] Olson, “Women and NGOs,” p. 9.

[72] Julie Hemment, “Strategizing Gender and Development: Action Research and Ethnographic Responsibility in the Russian Provinces,” in Post-Soviet Women Encountering Transition.

[73] Olson, “Women and NGOs,” p. 9.

[74] World Learning, “Armenia NGO Sector Assessment,” p. 31.

[75] Bribes are called kashark in Armenian, and corruption is known as bribe consumption or eating (kasharakerutiun). Grantakerutiun is another form of corruption and can be seen as the continuation of the kasharakerutiun that began during Soviet times and continues unchecked today.

[76] Sue Bridger and Frances Pine, Surviving Post-Socialism: Local Strategies and Regional Responses in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 12

[77] Ibid., p. 13.

[78] The growing concern that Armenia is becoming a Third-World or undeveloped country is not an irrational fear. See footnote 55.

[79] Bridger and Pine, Surviving Post-Socialism; Michael Burawoy and Katherine Verdery, Uncertain Transitions: Ethnographies of Change in the Post-Socialist World (Lanham: Rowan & Little. eld, 1999); Wedel, Collision and Collusion; Gerald W. Creed and Janine R. Wedel, “Second Thoughts from the Second World: Interpreting Aid in Post-Communist Eastern Europe,” Human Organization 56 (1997), no. 3, p. 261.

[80] Verdery, What Was Socialism.

[81] Wedel, Collision and Collusion, p. 21.

[82] Jonathan Crush, Power of Development (New York: Routledge, 1995); Arturo Escobar, “Anthropology and the Development Encounter: The Making and Marketing of Development Anthropology,” American Ethnologist 18, no. 4 (1991), pp. 658–82; James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990); Kabeer, Reversed Realities; and Fisher, Doing Good.

[83] Riall Nolan, “Now That We Know Where the Bodies Are Buried, Who Do We Tell?” Paper presented at the 2001 American Anthropological Association meetings; Michael Cernea, ed., Putting People First, 2d ed. (Washington, D.C.: World Bank and Oxford Univ. Press, 1991); Michael Horowitz, “Development and the Anthropological Encounter: A Reflective Underview,” Development Anthropologist 16, no. 1-2 (1998), pp. 44–50.

[84] Paul Rabinow, “Midst Anthropology’s Problems,” Cultural Anthropology 17, no. 2 (2002), pp. 135–49.

[85] Ibid., p. 141.

[86] Ibid., p. 142.

[87] Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 36.

[88] Ibid., p. 313. Biopower is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and rearticulating it. Ibid., pp. 23–24.

[89] Alvarez, “Latin American Feminisms,” pp. 315, 317.

[90] According to the Armenian Department of Statistics, poverty increased rapidly following independence in 1991, and by 1996, 85 percent of the families (740,000 families) in Armenia were receiving bene. ts from the Paros Family Bene. t Program for Vulnerable Families. In 2000, 55 percent of people in Armenia were classified as poor and 22.9 percent as very poor. UNDP Human Development Report, 2000.

[91] See the NGOC website, at .


[*] Armenian Forum 3, no. 1, pp. 7–36. © 2003 The Gomidas Institute

© Levon Abrahamian, 2010. Âñå ïðàâà çàùèùåíû.

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