26 July 2015, 12:28
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An Interview with COAF's Garo Armen About 'Smart' Center in Lori

ImYerevan interviews successful American-Armenian entrepreneur Garo Armen on plans to open a new state-of-the-art facility in the Lori province of Armenia. From Armen's characteristically optimistic and persevering perspective on Armenia's rural regions, COAF's founder describes his and his team's motivations and expectations for this major expansion to Lori.

KV: How did you decide on Lori as the location for this Smart Center?

GA: Let me start by saying that Armenia’s rural villages represent a fantastic untapped resource certainly for Armenia, but also for the world. This resource, of course, is foremost, its people. Our work started in one of the most difficult areas 12 years ago, and our intent was to explore how we could tap into this resource efficiently. And that we have. Now, our challenge is to achieve this with a high sense of urgency all over Armenia. Lori represents the first step to implement our innovative “Smart” concept. We believe the “Smart” steps we will take in Lori will allow us to achieve what we have in Armavir much quicker, at a much lower cost, and more effectively. Once this has been accomplished in Lori our objective will be to repeat the Smart module perhaps 15-20 times all over rural Armenia.

As you know, since 2003 we have worked in Armavir and the Southern part of Aragatsavan. When we started in Armavir, many international and domestic agencies warned us that it was the most difficult place, and that we should rethink our decision. But we decided to take on the challenge, and I think that the outcomes by all objective measures have been spectacular in terms of improving lives, changing lives, and empowering people. It’s been, in essence, a rebirth of the population. So, we did this in 23 different villages and the questions driving our decisions were: How do we expand? Where do we expand? And how do we expand in a way that’s going to allow us to replicate expediently? Because if we do what we did in Armavir, it would take too long of a time to reach all of the thousand villages of Armenia. We had to come up with a novel concept, and a novel concept is exactly what we’re doing here.

The first step will be the Smart Center located in our smart campus - the center will incorporate technology to connect to Yerevan, as many as 30 village communities in proximity to the campus, and other areas of the world in a way that makes communications seamless. The objective is for the local population, children, and the youth to have access to locally and globally relevant knowledge to help them advance their lives and their communities in ways that make them important global players in various fields. Thus, the Smart concept will be designed to provide various educations and the exchange of knowledge amongst the community. Each Smart community will expand our reach by as many as 25-30 village communities. In the next 3 years, we expect to have other smart communities initiated in several regions of Armenia, so that the goal would be within 10 years, perhaps, to reach as many as 200-250 villages or more. Such that within the subsequent 5 or 6 years, we will have covered half of all the villages in Armenia.

KV: Do you think that people will move to and start to repopulate the villages as a result of your initiatives?

GA: When you look at what we have done in Armavir Marz, we have established the best of schools. But schools are a physical structure. They’re only good to the extent that you deliver optimal education and curriculums. So, our educational system in Armavir is amongst the top in the country, if not the top. The same applies to the advanced health care system, the social system, and improved economies. If we can repeat all of this and offer a superior quality of life there will be little reason for the village communities to move away. I may want to move there myself! 

KV: Do you bring in outside specialists?

GA: Yes, of course! There are many organizations and agencies that have perfected specific programs they offer, and it’s constructive to work together. These include the US Embassy, USAID, various UN agencies, the World Bank, HSBC Bank, “Schools for Health in Europe” Network, Newman’s Own Foundation, Microsoft Innovation Center, and many others. Examples of such partnerships vary from “English Access Micro-scholarship Program”, “Professional Orientation Program”, “Health Promoting Schools” to “Entrepreneurship Training and Practice for Youth”, “E-Agro Platform”, “School Nutrition Program”, “Photo & Video Clubs”, “Brushodromes and Comprehensive Dental Care Program”, and a number of other initiatives.

We have our own extensive training modules. Our on-the-ground staff is one of the things that differentiates COAF – we have approximately 30 professionals in our headquarters who are in the villages almost daily, and a team of approximately 150 who are in the regions. So, we have a total workforce of approximately 180. We believe in mostly direct implementation of our programs, and not contracting things out to third parties. As I mentioned, this does not mean we don’t collaborate with others; but when we bring them in, we are the general contractors. We make sure that the programs are implemented properly. We don’t defer things, and that’s one of the secrets of our success. So, yes, we do bring in a lot of agencies, a lot of experts in their respective fields to help us perfect what we do in education, healthcare, social and economic programs. It is a fact, for example, today, that we have developed amongst the best standards of rural medicine in the country, one where other organizations come to both teach us as well as learn from us. Students from the medical school in Yerevan, if they want to specialize in rural healthcare, they come and train with us. So, the concept here is to use the Smart Center to replicate what we have done, but to do it rapidly in different regions in Armenia. Time is not our friend and we need to do this with a high sense of urgency. To implement things in a speedy fashion, we think leveraging a centralized campus which can serve large numbers of villages with connectivity to the center will provide this leverage.

KV: So, will it be children who are benefitting from this? Or all villagers?

GA: Everyone. Because we are a society. You can’t really segregate children from their parents. For example, TUMO is a fantastic model that targets young people with a technology emphasis, for which there is a critically important need. On the other hand, the needs of the villages require that we address a broader population. Thus, what we want to achieve is a holistic program that helps improve quality of life for all those in rural communities, with an emphasis on children and the youth. So, it is all-encompassing. Whereas TUMO’s mission is to enhance technology and technological education, our mission is to improve the standard of life in villages. And you can’t do that only with education programs. You can’t do that just with healthcare programs. You have to touch all aspects of life, which of course includes education and health but also social well-being and the economy across the board. And when you do that, you can’t separate children from their parents. For instance, we educate parents on nutritional practices, so while we do that with children at schools, you can’t leave parents out of the equation. Otherwise, what happens when they go home? The parents are not schooled in what we’re teaching, so we need to maintain a continuum. We need to be consistent in the way children practice their nutritional habits in their school and in their homes.

All of these things need to converge and for that you need to involve the entire society. I don’t believe that you can do what we’re doing with just targeting children. Of course, children are the major focus. 70-80% of what we do is targeted at children, but I think it’s unfair to leave the rest out. And one of the things that I said earlier, we just provide enough for children to bring out their own talents organically, naturally. For example, children in our villages in Armavir have come up with their own plans to clean the environment through their own initiatives, not through our teachings. And children have heard that they’re doing this in a nearby village, and they wanted to repeat it in their own village. And they got together with the children over there to transfer this program.

Our Lori Smart Center is located in beautiful rural region, its architecture will be outrageously advanced which will motivate people who will start believing that what was unthinkable is indeed possible. This kind of belief has been our historical tradition reflected in our accomplishments and contributions as a nation as a culture and as people.

KV: Do you plan to staff it with individuals from urban centers nearby? If so, how do you plan to incentivize those individuals to relocate to Lori when there are relatively few urban resources for them here, other than the center itself?

GA: There’s a movement in the US that started in the fifties. It’s called the “back to the land movement”. I have a farm in Maine, and we’re finding that some of the best graduates want to come back to the land and practice some of the pure means of farming and clean living. This could also happen in Armenia. Rural communities have much to offer both to their own communities and the country at large; all we need to do is provide a little resource and my belief is that they will do most of the heavy lifting as they have done historically. The COAF Lori campus will be comprised of the smart center, a health center, sports grounds, and several workshops to teach farming, forestry, construction, and bee-keeping. In addition, we will have a bed-and-breakfast facility that will be able to accommodate about 20 guests, to make it inviting for experts to come here and, through teaching, help make these communities centers of excellence.

KV: Why did you decide the center should adopt a “holistic approach”?

GA: The problems in rural Armenia are so vast. When we started our work in 2003, we thought we were just going to renovate a school and that would be the end of it. Then, once we started renovating the school, we found out that the educational standards were problematic. So, we brought in experts to train teachers and principals and introduce student clubs. That’s what made our programs successful. And then, the same thing happened with health programs. The clinic needed to be renovated, but then we found out that the nurses and the physicians were not trained properly, so we started training them and through that, we eventually established the best practices of rural medicine. And just as all of this was going on, we noticed that there were a variety of social issues, and people felt empowered and more confident to express their social problems. Before that, there was a stigma. Nobody talked about it, because if you had a psychological or sociological problem, or if you were not treated properly in school by your friends and teachers, you didn’t really express yourself. But the population gained more confidence as we were watching their back that they wouldn’t be left alone with their troubles.

There were, for example, stigmas also associated with handicapped children. Once they were educated on the reality of handicaps, then children started to protect and defend the handicapped. Shortly thereafter, children – on their own – noticed that there were the elderly in their villages that weren’t being cared for properly, so they organized amongst themselves and started programs to help them ensuring that the elderly had enough fuel in their homes in the winter, but more importantly, they wanted to keep them company because they realized that it wasn’t just material issues that mattered for the elderly. They wanted to be respected and included in the society. All of these are beautiful and meaningful outcomes, and what unites them all is that one specific program cannot address them.

You have to have a holistic program that addresses all meaningful aspects of the society that has been broken, and, as you do all of this, you will be amazed at how the children mobilize amongst themselves to come up with solutions. Remember, we go there, but we don’t live there. The children know their issues better that we do, and often they come up with better solutions than we can. We cannot assume that because we live in so-called ‘advanced societies’ that we can necessarily tell them how to live. So, our approach empowers them, and gives them the resources so they can come up with their own solutions.

 

Read ImYerevan’s coverage on the new center here.

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