Mayors for Economic Growth: How innovative development approaches can help solve issues in Armenian communities

08 May 2022

Originally published in News.Am

The communities of Armenia have been facing issues that at first glance seem almost insurmountablefor decades: unemployment remains quite high, environmental issues and difficulties with garbage collection and recycling hinder agriculture, business, and tourism, while people face serious challenges amid problems with energy sources and heating.

Some international programs implemented in the country in recent decades have been aimed at solving these issues, but many of them have remained unresolved. However, the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative has every chance to finally lead to serious tangible changes both in the Armenian communities and in the lives of the inhabitants of these communities.

Mayors for Economic Growth is the second phase of the EU initiative, being implemented by the United Nations Development Program since 2021. Its goal is to promote economic growth, improve the business environment and create new jobs for sustainable economic development in the cities and communities of the Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine).

Zhirayr Edilyan, head of the Mayors for Economic Growth program in Armenia, told Armenian news agency that the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative is extremely different from other programs ever implemented in Armenia: it involves innovative approaches used for more than 10 years in information technology, and particularly, in project management. The proposed methodology considers the community as a system and allows finding non-linear solutions to complex and seemingly unsolvable problems.

Why can’t some problems be solved by ‘common’ methods?

As Zhirayr Edilyan said, the problems can be divided into several main groups: simple, complicated, complex, and critical. And their solutions require different approaches.

To solve simple problems, some knowledge and skills are needed – and usually, it is more than enough. For example, if the condition of roads in one of the streets of the city has deteriorated. This is a fairly simple problem and everyone knows how to solve it.

Complicated problems have several components, and their solution requires multiple actions in the right order. But usually, experience and knowledge are enough to solve such problems as well.

Meanwhile, complex problems include many parties with different, sometimes conflicting interests. Few people can imagine how such problems need to be solved – what needs to be done and in what order.

For example, it is necessary to solve the problem of the unattractive appearance of the city. What needs to be done for this? From what side can this problem be approached? After all, the problem is multilevel: it includes many stakeholders, many legal, ethical, and other issues. Do we need to forbid painting balconies or installing air conditioners? Or force people to demolish all the “ugly” buildings and garages? It is quite obvious that all this is impossible and unrealistic.

“There are no obvious solutions to complex problems. No one knows how such problems should be solved, from which side they should be approached,” Edilyan noted. “Many people try to solve complex problems in the same way as they solve simple and complicated problems – using “ordinary”, “technical” solutions. But experience shows that it does not work out.”

The methodology used by the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative is designed to solve complex problems, as it considers the community as a system, as a whole, and the problems of the community as interconnected phenomena in this system, which are not static and are constantly changing.

Systemic approach vs. linear approach

All development programs carried out in Armenia have applied the so-called linear approach so far: specialists decide what needs to be done to achieve this or that result in a few years and follow the prepared plan. After the end of the program, specialists assessed the path traveled and tried to understand whether they had achieved their goals.

The new methodology used by Mayors for Economic Growth is based on system thinking  The community is seen as a system and having understood what problems there are in this system, it is sometimes necessary to figure out which points in this system need to be influenced to achieve the desired results. The effectiveness of the measures taken is assessed not at the end of the program, but regularly right during the process: specialists monitor how the system changes as a result of the impact, draw conclusions and decide what further steps need to be taken to direct the changes in the right direction.

“The system is constantly changing. Tomorrow it will not be the same as yesterday,” Edilyan added. “Moreover, changes in the system are unpredictable. For example, a couple of months ago no one could have imagined how the events in Ukraine would affect the economy and all aspects of life in our country. A development program with a linear approach could not take this change into account and adapt, while a systems approach allows us to work effectively with an ever-changing system.”

Mayors for Economic Growth in Armenia

This initiative promises to help the small town and community authorities develop and implement innovative approaches to sustainable economic growth. Experts will help community administrations in developing plans for local economic development, in a more correct organization of the distribution of resources, in search of new resources and finances that can be directed to the economic growth of the community.

Unlike many other programs, Mayors for Economic Growth will not do the bulk of the work by professionals or contracted civil society organizations, but by active groups of community administrators. They will be trained in innovative approaches to solving complex problems in their communities, and they will be able to apply the knowledge gained to solve other problems already out of this program.

Currently, Areni has been chosen as the community for applying the so-called “portfolio” approach. An active group of community administrators and specialists from the United Nations Development Program has already studied the problems of the community as a system and mapped them.

Initially, three large groups of problems have been identified in the community:

  • Tourism development (which will help attract additional finance to the community);
  • Development of alternative directions of the economy (there are no sources of income other than winemaking in Areni today);
  • Problems of safety and ecology (on the one hand, it is a borderlinecommunity, on the other hand, global warming has a more serious impact on the community than one might think).

Garbage was also noted as a separate group of problems: improper organization of its cleaning and processing also affects winemaking (as it impacts the quality of grapes) and makes the community less attractive to tourists.

It was decided to start with one group of problems and try to solve them within the initiative, using the methodology described above. The Areni administration decided to focus on the development of tourism in the community. They want to make Areni a place where a tourist wants to spend not a few hours, but at least a few days – and so that there are some activities for the tourists to be involved in during these few days. Moreover, as part of the development of tourism, it will also be possible to address the problem of garbage and alternative ways of economic development, because tourism can become a new source of income, different from winemaking.

As Zhirayr Edilyan noted, in the near future it is planned to conduct one innovative program in the communities of Alaverdi, Ashtarak, and Charentsavan.

In Charentsavan, for example, there are problems both with the appearance of the city and irrigation systems. Both problems are complex and seemingly unsolvable, but thanks to the systemic approach of the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative, they may be solved. And then this experience will be useful to other cities and countries because such problems exist almost everywhere today.

To date, 28 communities in Armenia have already been involved in the program. However, other communities are planned to be involved during the year. The communities themselves must express their desire to join the program, and they will be selected according to a number of criteria, among which are the willingness of the community administration to experiment, their desire to introduce and try innovative approaches to change people’s lives for the better.