Armenia is landlocked and mountainous, bordered by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east and Iran to the south. It is a country with a long history of conflict and trouble. Its geopolitical boundaries have been the site of much bloodshed and the repercussions of past history and more recent conflict continue to affect the country’s social, political and economic life. A former republic of the Soviet Union, it declared independence in 1990 becoming the first non-Baltic republic to secede from the Soviet Union. Independence was officially recognized in 1991. Economic difficulties and a bloody conflict with Azerbaijan marred the early years of independence. No formal diplomatic relations exist with Turkey due to historical and political events and disputes dating back many years, but also continuing into modern history. The Armenian borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed.
Armenia is a young country. Young people (aged 15-24years) make up 18.5% of the population., but high unemployment has been a feature of the country’s economy, confounded by as it is with the legacy of the breakdown of the former Soviet trading patterns. Youth unemployment rates of young people aged 15 -24 years are high at 48.9% with more young women (56.6%) unemployed than young men (43%) reflecting gender based inequalities. The political and economic situation within the country has prompted a large exodus of young people in search of work, primarily to the Russian Federation and other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. As well as unemployment, young people face a shortage of suitable housing, have poor access to and knowledge of health and other areas of youth information.
Youth Policy in Armenia is defined as ‘serving the needs of young people aged between 16-30’. Different documents set out different priorities and definitions. A number of goals and objectives are, however, espoused including: the provision of support to young business people; a guarantee of youth employment; support to young families; support for gifted children; support of young people’s international collaboration; and the protection of young people’s rights. YouthBank offers a model of youth engagement that feeds into elements within this set of objectives.
Background to Youth Bank in Armenia
The YouthBank model was introduced to Armenia by Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF) in 2007. This represented the first youth led project undertaken by EPF in the region, and since then they have extended their support for such work across the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Volunteerism is not an established part of the culture in Armenia, nor indeed in other countries in the region. As such young people have few opportunities to get involved in community development work. Many access available training opportunities in business, leadership, or various trades but find it difficult to put their skills to use, particularly when youth unemployment is so high. The YouthBank model is regarded as an ideal practical approach for young people to gain a range of life skills which they can put to immediate use for the good of their community. The personal benefits to them as individuals are also significant, as evidence from YouthBank Armenia suggests that participation helps young people find employment.
Youth NGOs act as local host bodies for each YouthBank, providing support in the shape of a meeting space and other practical resources. The Eurasia Partnership Foundation works with these organisations to encourage long term commitment and consistency. The model, according to an EPF representative, as learnt from the Community Foundation Northern Ireland, works well in Armenia because of its simplicity and adaptability.
Five YouthBanks were initially established in Armenia. There is now one in each of the eleven regions in Armenia. Each YouthBank has between four and ten members aged 16-27 years. Numerous donors support the work, including USAID, Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Finland, Jinishian Memorial Foundation, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Swedish International Development Agency. The simplicity and transparency of the model is very attractive to donors, as are the relatively quick and visible outcomes. Fundraising however is a challenge. In the first year 25 projects were funded, 42 in the second year and 44 in the third year. A further 24 projects contributing to EU accession have been funded. Enthusiasm for YouthBank is such that many of the young people who receive funding for youth-led projects become volunteers for their local YouthBank committee.
Making a Difference
Apart from the grant making work YouthBank members in Armenia initiate a lot of charity work in their local communities and organise fundraising events. Committee members have, for example, organised a football tournament as a fundraiser for needy families, they have raised funds to buy stationery for disadvantaged school children, have organised a clean up of church grounds, have planted trees in local villages and taken part in Facebook campaigns. In some cases the local committee has raised significant funds to supplement the EPF grant in order to support more local youth led projects.
The YouthBank model has been used as a peace building tool to bring young people together from Turkey and Armenia on one side, Azerbaijan and Armenia – on the other. As diplomatic relations between the two countries are suspended, EPF and The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland supported a youth NGO in Istanbul to set up a YouthBank network in 2011. There are now six YouthBanks in Turkey. Under the auspices of YouthBank young people from Armenia and Turkey have taken part in exchange visits, and as a result friendships, trust, and mutual respect have all been nurtured. In 2012, YB members from Armenia and Turkey plan to meet again on several occasions, and, moreover, design and implement joint action. The YouthBank Ireland training team will remain involved in nurturing these developments, as a mentor and facilitator in meetings, especially where many young people from areas in conflict, come together. The meetings are important in terms of building knowledge among young people with no prior chance to meet because of the existing tension and conflicts. The grant makers not only get to work together around a common theme but build confidence in one another through open discussions and carrying out joint initiatives.
Growth and Future
The Eurasia Partnership Foundation has received funding from the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to expand the YouthBank initiative in the South Caucasus and Turkey. A number of new YouthBanks will be set up in 5 geographic regions: Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. By working together on cross community and cross border projects YouthBank will act as a vehicle for community development and conflict resolution in the region. The YouthBank Ireland training team will continue to have a key role in the development of this work. The training team holds a pivotal role as the connecting link for YouthBank between all of these countries. The benefit of having independent, respected and skilled facilitation to work in sensitive and potentially divisive situations is not underestimated by the local hosts.
Click here to find out more about the YouthBank Program in Armenia
Youth Activism in rural communities in Armenia Read More
YouthBank Armenia launch their new website