Although this blog will mainly be a personal account of life living in Armenia since 1998, it will also take a look back at key issues which still affect the country today. One of those issues is poverty, a topic I covered extensively from 2000 to 2006. Back then, the Armenian Diaspora was largely ignorant of such problems and not least because of the new construction work evident in the center of Yerevan. However, that was just a fascade to the real situation for many Armenians, and especially those with large numbers of children.
According to UNICEF, the situation is not much different today. Indeed, even government statistics have registered a rise in poverty in Armenia — from 28 percent in 2009 to 36 percent today — and that’s according to the officially defined poverty line, set incredibly low, with around 40 percent of children considered particularly vulnerable.
More than 40 percent of children in Armenia lived below the official poverty line last year, according to a government survey released this week.
The National Statistical Service (NSS) based the figure on a household income survey conducted across the country. A separate report publicized by it last week put the nationwide poverty rate at 36 percent, up from 28 percent registered in 2009.
The increased poverty is the mainly consequence of the 2008 global financial crisis that hit Armenia hard.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) expressed concern over the latest NSS data, saying that the Armenian government should do more to tackle child poverty.
“If a child lives in poverty and especially in extreme poverty, then they lack their basic rights and lack access to healthcare, education and other public services,” said Emil Sahakian, a spokesman for the UNICEF office in Yerevan. “And if a child is deprived of those rights, they will have few chances of becoming successful after growing up … and that cycle of poverty will also affect their future family.”
Looking back, it’s a pity that there hadn’t been more engagement from the Diaspora, with some ethnic Armenians abroad even considering the very mention of there being poverty in the country as some kind of treason or betrayal. Indeed, prior to 2003 the local Armenian media didn’t cover it at all until the government of the day effectively gave the green light with the announcement of their Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) late the same year.
More than a year later in 2004, however, there appeared to be little progress and not least for those families living outside of the welfare system who lacked proper documentation or the support of any local or international organization. Even taking the head of UNICEF in Armenia to a squat in a once prosperous, now run-down industrial part of Yerevan didn’t change the lot of the families living there. Working at Hetq Online at the time, however, we did publish some articles. LINK.
The state knows nothing about these people. They appear nowhere in the myriad studies, analyses, reports and projects on poverty. They are on no unemployment lists; their children are mostly unregistered, no one even wants to draft the boys into the army. These people have been swept out of sight and thrown into this ash-heap, so that no one has to know that they exist, eking out a miserable existence in the capital of Armenia . There are a hundred children living here, children who go to bed every night dreaming about bread, sugar, meat, fruit. These children have heard their parents’ sad stories hundreds of times, but they still can’t understand how they ended up here, or why they can’t go to school because of some papers, why they can’t have passports, why they don’t get drafted when they turn eighteen.
Armenuhi Boyajyan lives here with her four children. She is not married. “I rented rooms for five years. I applied to various agencies, and in the end the Shengavit District Administration gave me a place here. But they didn’t give me papers, although Mayor Martin Sargisyan promised they would. My oldest son is fifteen years old; my youngest is seven. I couldn’t send my youngest boy to school – they told me to pay 3,000 drams for papers but I don’t have it. Sure, it’s not a big sum, but I don’t have it. I get 16,000 drams a month in allowance and 3,000 drams is a lot of money for me. If there is day work for an unskilled laborer my son does it. But he doesn’t have a job. I’ve been here for two months now; we don’t even have electricity,” Armenuhi concludes her story.
Exacerbated by corruption, two closed borders, a lack of foreign direct investment, oligarchy, and an inadequate social safety net, the situation was made worse last year when Armenia finally felt the brunt of the global economic crisis. Of course, Armenia is not alone in its dire socio-economic situation. With a GDP Per Capita of just $5,700 in 2010, according to the CIA Fact Book, Georgia stood at $4,900 the same year. In oil-rich Azerbaijan it was $10,900.
According to the 2011 United Nations Human Development Report, Armenia was ranked 86th out of 169 countries, trailing Georgia at 75th, but slightly ahead of Azerbaijan at 91st. Nevertheless, that will come as small comfort to those living in poverty in Armenia, especially when the country continues to rely on remittances from migrant workers abroad to keep the economy afloat. And, isolated from regional projects, it is possible that Armenia will slip behind both in the coming years.