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      Charity begins at Homeland

Charity begins at Homeland   2/08/2005


Charity begins at Homeland

Fledgling democracies, like Armenia, have always depended heavily on their Diasporas.  Although the Armenian Diaspora is the product of a most tragic event of historic proportions, at least in this case it becomes a blessing in disguise, as most of the survivors, their descendants and recent expatriates take the fate of their ancestral homeland at heart and they strive to support the country politically and economically.

A hefty portion of Armenia's income depends on subsidies provided by recent immigrants from Russia and the West.  It also depends on foreign investments and the contributions of major benefactors.  With all the pride and bravura we take sometimes, the contributions of the Diaspora falls far below its potential, especially compared to some other ethnic groups.  However, we have learned to raise the level of charity from the emotional level to the intellectual level, which is a feat in itself.  It is very easy to motivate people to donate by showing pictures of some destitute orphans.  But it takes a higher, intellectual level of perception to support, say, the Cosmic Ray Center on Aragats Mountain or to build a museum, or sustain the literary and artistic endeavors of the country.  But we are getting there, slowly, but surely.  Also the figures of the contributions have risen dramatically to unprecedented levels.

Some major contributors have come to expand the scope of their charity, shifting from individuals or institutions to the concept of helping a state to survive.  This is a salutary development.

Another development is the unconditional support of donors.  This trend was established by the late benefactor Alex Manoogian, who did not shy away from supporting the Church and cultural institutions, during the Soviet period when many thought that they had good reasons – or sometimes good excuses – to stay away from a Communist ruled country.  Throughout the harsh years of war, earthquake, transition and power blackouts, the Madenataran, one of the most valuable treasures of Armenia, survived thanks to Manoogian's generous contributions.  The family also continued that trend as the country gradually emerged from those dark days.

The conversion from a command to market economy, the earthquake, the war, and in between, the human greed and unscrupulous government swindlers took their toll in hampering the support of Diaspora Armenians.  At that period, many of Armenia's enemies were within the country plundering the relief that was intended for the poor, the needy and those stricken by the earthquake.  But there were also equally heroic moments when people shared what little they had with their fellow Armenians.

Some individual benefactors and organizations conditioned their support against favors that they expected from Armenia.  It was either a favorable business deal or a government appointment.  There were also political parties, which were treated unfavorably or were banned unfairly, and they lobbied foreign governments to deny the grants to Armenia, while the country was at the brink of starvation.  They resorted to that unpatriotic extreme, because they were denied a say and place in Armenia.

On the other side of the coin major benefactors emerged who rose above all that.  Probably they did not even bother to hear the acrimonious charges from some opposition quarters or Diaspora quarters, fighting to the bitter end to bring the current administration down.  At the forefront of those benefactors are Kirk Kerkorian and Gerald Cafesjian.  Mr. Kerkorian, through his Lincy Foundation, contributed $150 million between 2001 and 2004 to reconstruct and repair 300 miles of major highways, five bridges, two tunnels, as well as 3,674 new apartments in the earthquake zone.  Additionally, all major cultural institutions went through renovations – the Madenataran, the National Museum, the Opera, the State University and other facilities.  Any visitor can witness the positive change that this contribution brought to the country.

Also, $20 million were allocated in loans to small businesses.  The Izmirlian Foundation of Geneva, Switzerland, has a similar program through Eurasia Foundation.  Contrary to all the naysayers the programs have been operating smoothly and debt redemption is at a very enviable level.  Honest business practices have been developing parallel to corruption, bribes and other illegal activities, which at times are magnified in the Diaspora, to find excuses for non-participation.

Recently Mr. Kerkorian made a surprise visit to Armenia and it seems that he was pleased that his contributions were put to good use, and he pledged another $60 million to similar projects.

Another case in point is Gerald Cafesjian, who has already contributed $25 million.  His project is the development of the Cascade at the heart of the capital city Yerevan – it is in the process of becoming a showcase for the world to behold.  Already a series of museums are under construction by famous architects like David Holston and world-class art by Botero, Chadwick, Flenkly and others are being exhibited.  Cafesjian Family Foundation's world-class glass collection will be housed in one of those museums.  Although a cynic criticized that the last thing Armenia needs is a glass collection, whereas Armenia has a great potential to become a tourist country and any item or institution that enhances the country's cultural potential may translate into tourist dollars in the future.

Armenia does not have natural resources or potential for heavy industry.  It has to depend on the ingenuity of the people to develop state-of-the-art technology and tourism.  In the past, when Armenia was integrated in Soviet economy, it contributed to heavy industry.  For example, the turbines at Assouan Dam in Egypt were designed and manufactured in Armenia.  That was the largest project of its kind in the world.  But no more.  Armenia will be concentrating on its own scarce resources to develop technology, light industry and tourism.  Museums feature well in this last category.

Last year's Thanksgiving Telethon was a phenomenal success, as Armenia Fund raised $11 million for much needed projects in Karabagh.  Armenia Fund is another functioning operation with exemplary accountability and transparency.

Frequent visitors observe the improvements day by day.  Although there is still more room for improvement and that calls for more generosity from the Diaspora.  Last year $11 million was a record, but we know for fact there are some other Kerkorians hiding out there who single-handedly can afford similar contributions.

We still have many misgivings about how the relief funds are handled in Armenia and those misgivings are arguably justified.  But also more shining result-oriented examples are emerging like the Cafesjian and Kerkorian projects.  Therefore, it comes to the question of whether the cup is half full or half empty.

Yet it is better to take the risk and give, than to see Armenia sink into the oblivion of history.  Those courageous benefactors have set the pace.  We can follow their footsteps, keeping all proportions in perspective.

For families, charity begins at home; for nations, charity begins at the homeland.

August 2, 2005


© 2010 - La Lettre de l'ADL
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