After the eyes of the West go away, the problems remain
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it wasn’t long before the newly independent Armenia became drawn into a bloody conflict with its neighbour Azerbaijan and for a while the rest of the world took notice.
Celebrities like Cher, whose father was an Armenian American helped draw attention to the humanitarian crisis and as the land-locked country became strangled by trade blockades, high unemployment and widespread poverty, aid teams were dispatched. Since then, Armenia has slipped down the agenda, but while the news crews may be long gone, the work of many international charities continues.
“Armenia is not a country people immediately think of when asked where Oxfam works,” says David Hewitt, a legacy advisor for the charity, from Church Fenton in North Yorkshire. “However, as soon as you step outside the capital Yerevan it becomes clear just how much still needs to be done. In rural areas, families depend on growing fruits on very mountainous land. It’s hard enough to make enough to live on, let along save for the future. When Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, its economy was based on heavy industry, with many people working in cement and rubber processing factories.
“It was a protected market, but when the Soviet Union broke up, people could suddenly buy materials from wherever they wanted. Armenia couldn’t compete with the competition and the cheaper prices. Overnight entire industries disappeared and in much of the country they have still not being replaced.”
It wasn’t just jobs which became a rare commodity, access to schools and health care became only for the privileged few, an imbalance which charities like Oxfam have tried to set right.
“Local clinics and doctors slowly disappeared,” says David, who has recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the country. “Eventually all healthcare provision became concentrated in the major towns and cities. The roads in Armenia are not great, transport is unreliable and if you know it’s going to take your a day, perhaps two to get to a doctor and back, it left many people with an impossible choice – stay at home and work to feed themselves and their family or go for a check up.” Oxfam funded 140 healthcare clinics across Armenia and on his latest trip David met one of the project’s success stories. Susana, a mother-of-two sensed she had a major health problem, but didn’t have the money or transport to travel to the capital.
“When she was examined by one of our mobile screening services, she was diagnosed with breast cancer,” says David. “Susana then got treatment and is now in full remission. She told me that without the Oxfam programme she wouldn’t be here for her children now. We try to make sure the projects we run are sustainable in the long-term. What’s really good to see is that many of the clinics we started are now being taken on by the communities themselves, who pay £1 a month.”
More recently, Oxfam has also been working to improve the lives of farmers, with the opening of two cold storage facilities.
“In the past farmers only had a very short amount of time to sell their produce before it started to rot and therefore they have to take whatever price was available at the time,” says David.
“Now the new storage units mean the fruit and vegetables will have an eight to nine month shelf life, which gives the farmers much greater flexibility.
“Oxfam has also launched a text message system to give remote villages up to the minute market prices. Most people have mobile phones and it means they can decide whether its worth driving into the city or better to wait to see if prices rise.”
None of the projects could have been realised without the generosity of public donations and the charity is now looking for teams fot this year’s Oxfam Trailtrekker event. Supported by the Yorkshire Post, last year 537 brave souls took part in the 100km trek through the Dales, raising £237,000 between them.
“Our work is about empowering people. That can be very difficult in a former Communist country where people aren’t used to lobbying government for their rights, but for all its problems Armenia is a fascinating country, rich in history and culture and its people, despite everything, are optimistic about the future.”
Two shorter routes have been included in this year’s Oxfam Trailtrekker challenge which will take place on June 5 and 6. For more information go to www.oxfam.org.uk/trailtekker.