Interview with Marina Mkhitaryan, Former Manager of Alternative Resources in Media (ARM) program

A Conversation between a Mountain and a Lake


 Can the Traditional Family Innovate?

My narrative of 2013 includes a controversial story. Martuni is located 1900 meters above sea level, on the mountain slopes which surround Lake Sevan, at around a 2 hour drive from Yerevan. Martuni is famous for its hospitality and notorious for massive labor migration to Russia and Ukraine. Tourists reach Martuni to visit the ancient monasteries and natural monuments there. If they ever reach the highlands they encounter the lifestyle that the shepherds lead there – the senior members of the families live in the yayla pasturelands for 6-8 months a year, at an altitude of 2000 or more meters, without electricity or communication. One doesn’t expect the beneficiaries of one’s program to deviate so much from what statistics and common sense dictate. In a country where literacy levels reach 99.6%, the presumption that medieval social conditions are a legend of past, turns out to be wrong.

The ambitious ARM program promised back in 2010 to spread media literacy across the country and provide access to alternative content and new tools. EPF established a chain of information centers called InfoTuns in 6 regions of Armenia, giving free access and a whole new exposure to web tools to as many as 15,000 people annually. We trained them in internet literacy, blogging and social media campaigns, mentored their community blogs and oriented them in organizing the first flashmobs to support community causes. The InfoTuns turned into alternative ‘municipalities’ where citizens directed their requests and complaints, often unrelated to their information consumption needs. Soon we had to scale up the capacity of InfoTuns and train the InfoTuners to become innovation brokers for each region, by identifying local issues and offering technology-based practical solutions. Such initiatives gave birth to projects on online municipal monitoringvolunteering coordination and tourism promotion.

But for me, the breaking point of the program came when the coordinator of the Martuni InfoTun took a laptop, a 3G connection device and drove to yayla. He opened the laptop, connected to the internet, found the grandchildren of the shepherds on Skype and invited the shepherds to speak to their grandchildren situated two thousand meters below, right on the shore of Sevan.

The statistics say that during the ARM program implementation, internet penetration grew from 12% to about 54% in Armenia. ICT analysts say that there was a breakthrough when the supply side started to sell an affordable 3G connection. But I believe that the breakthrough was equally shared by the demand side, which started to perceive the internet as a communication, education and participation tool rather than merely a toy for children’s entertainment. My preferred beneficiary of the project is an old man in the Martuni pasturelands, whose life acquired a new quality and a new routine – every day after sunset he goes online to chat with his five-year-old granddaughter. In our work, impact comes with self-doubt. One can say that using Skype to connect relatives, even at a technical level of advancement (reaching out to the edge of the mountain), is far from the objectives of the USAID-funded ARM. But I somehow feel that the above story demonstrates impact. What do you think? Is there an impact in that story? Why or why not?

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