Bradley Busetto:

Bradley Busetto:

“Real change is going to be driven by the people of Armenia”

Regional Post talked to the UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative in Armenia, Mr. Bradley Busetto, about the most important initiatives of the organization in Armenia, as well as the challenges it faces, and opportunities for a bright future.                     

Interview : Artavazd Yeghiazaryan   /  Photo : Arnos Martirosyan

Mr. Busetto, before Armenia you worked in Indonesia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Iraq. Are there any similarities between working in Armenia and these countries?

In the countries you mentioned, my job mostly involved saving lives after wars and natural disasters – it focused on the humanitarian mandate of the UN. So in this way, what we are doing in Armenia is very different. Armenia came out of its crisis many years ago and the UN’s current focus is how to accelerate Armenia’s development. We try to act as a catalyst to move the country in the right direction to create sustainable jobs, improve governance and build resilience.

You were appointed as the UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative in Armenia nearly four years ago. How has your vision for Armenia’s development changed between then and now?

I think I’ve learnt a lot during this period. Not only about how complex Armenia is, but also about how exciting the opportunities are for Armenia moving forward. I think the key to success is Armenia’s connectivity to the region. So, we often think how international partners of Armenia, like the UN, can help accelerate this connectivity? Maybe through modernizing the borders, supporting the election of female leaders in the countryside and many other ways.
The other key point is promoting citizen engagement. Everyone knows about the demographic issues the country faces. I think that people leave not only because of economic reasons, but also because they feel they have limited influence on society or on politics. It’s apathy. We’ve already made some changes in this field, and the level of citizen engagement has really grown. One of the ways we achieve this is through our social innovation platform, called Kolba Lab. Kolba uses crowdsourcing to reach out to citizens for their ideas and action in solving some of Armenia’s biggest social challenges.
Another important thing that has changed since I arrived here is the start-up culture. It’s not only a phenomenon exclusive to Yerevan, but to Armenians in general. Organizations like TUMO, ImpactHub and OneArmenia promote social ventures that not only make money, but also do social good. This sector is very important for us. So much so, that in late March we are hosting the very first UN Global Summit on impact investment for development here in Yerevan. The idea is to bring together the world’s foremost leading social enterprise investors with leading development practitioners, so that investors and entrepreneurs can talk to each other. It will help to come up with new investment models for accomplishing development work. Hopefully it will also attract new investments for this sector in Armenia. There’s a huge opportunity to position Armenia as a leader in this field.
The fourth key area is partnering. Armenia is not a huge country, but it has huge opportunities. The question is how to push civil society to work together in a coherent manner and how to bring international partners together? There are a lot of partners who help Armenia, but it is extremely important to make sure that this help is coordinated. What we must never forget is that real change in Armenia is only going to be driven by the people of Armenia.

As you actively travel all around Armenia, you can probably see what has changed in Armenia during these years yourself. Are you satisfied with the situation in the other regions?

Maybe the pace of change is slower in the regions than it is in Yerevan. I also think the acceleration of the social innovation space and start-up culture can be even quicker. Of course, there are serious challenges but opportunities are there too. Such as tourism, which is still a largely untapped sector in Armenia. Although there have been big flagship projects like Tatev, for example. What we’re trying to focus on is looking at things from the other way around – focusing more on the village level, on community-driven eco-tourism, or tourism that can promote food, local living and local cultural heritage which can then compete on the international market. We are now starting a big tourism initiative based on helping communities create their own projects in agro or eco-tourism, or in using their own specific cultural monuments.
We are actively working on creating jobs outside of Yerevan. Most recently, we’ve been working in the region of Tavush, targeting the 45 communities near the border. There we run a rural development programs; one funded by the Russian Federation, and aiming to create sustainable business opportunities for farmers, by giving them access to agricultural know-how and quality equipment. In another region of Armenia – Shirak – we operate an EU-funded programme that helps organize cooperatives and produce high-value crops. Country wide, we are supporting the agro-cultural sphere, we’re creating a new textile industry, establishing a lot of greenhouses, eco-tourism centers and more.

You just mentioned an initiative the UN is now implementing in the tourism sector. In your view, what are some of the other significant UN initiatives implemented in Armenia over the past four years?

There are 14 UN agencies in Armenia that are representing different aspects of development, so it’s not going to be easy, but I’ll talk about some of the most noticeable ones. One of them is modernizing border crossing points with Georgia, bringing completely brand new and state of the art infrastructure. Borders are not only about national security, but also about trade and development. The first impression plays an important role. If an investor drives across the border, sees old and unpleasant infrastructure, then he or she probably won’t think about investing any more. But now it’s amazing and the modernization makes it feel efficient and more secure.
Another important area in recent years is our support to the Syrian Armenian community, of whom 20,000 refugees have made their way into Armenia over the past few years. UNHCR offered them immediate support, such as accommodation, food and blankets. Now we need to focus more on the next stage: training, finding jobs and integration.
Human rights issues are very much in focus for us, especially regarding gender equality. Even though it’s not that sensitive in Armenia, it’s obvious that there are not many women in business positions or in government. We work with local NGOs to help young female leaders in rural communities, those who want to be engaged in politics and governance. We help to build their skills, run their campaigns and so on.
Another area which is perhaps less visible, but also very important, is the problem of sex selective abortions. A few years ago it was a real crisis and the birth ratio of boys and girls was somewhere around 120 to 100, which was one of the worst in the world. I think we really played a key role in working with the government, church and the military to make it clear that first and foremost it’s a national security issue: it’s about life and death. Now the ratio is about 112 to 100, which is almost normal.
Another significant project (undertaken by UNICEF) was related to children in residential care, whose families couldn’t support them, so they were staying in very old, soviet-style residential accommodation. It is best if children are raised by their biological families but in some cases an alternative family can be found – through kinship, a foster family or an adoptive family. For now, 75 per cent of these kids are with families again.

One of the important UN initiatives in Armenia is support for the upcoming parliamentary elections. How exactly is the office involved?

It’s the first time we’re supporting the elections in this country on such a wide scale. To make them more inclusive and transparent, we are helping to provide voter authentication technology. It’s a particular type of equipment that makes sure that when you go to vote, you are the person you claim to be and no one else can do so on your behalf. The great thing about this initiative is that we’re doing it upon the request of the government, opposition and civil society, with the participation of all three parties and international organizations and states such as the EU, US, UK, and Germany.

The UN is also very active in HIV/AIDS related issues.

Yes and Armenia has great results here. I believe it’s one of the first countries in the world to totally eliminate the transition of HIV from mother to child, which is a huge milestone. It’s basically a huge step towards the eradication of HIV. Once again, it’s not what the UN is doing, but what Armenia is doing itself, while the UN is here to help, encourage and support.

What about energy efficiency?

We are currently in the process of implementing large projects here. We just received a twenty-million-dollar investment through the Green Climate Fund, which will help to create a major energy efficiency initiative, both in residential and public buildings. The project itself is based on another project that we completed a few years ago in Avan district, where we covered one multi apartment building with insulation (which by the way, was designed in Armenia), ultimately generating up to 60 per cent in energy savings. That small pilot brought us to the twenty-milliondollar project, which may potentially trigger much larger investments from the European Investment Bank. So, I believe this project will make Armenia a leader in the energy efficiency field.

How do you see the future of the UN in Armenia?

I hope that we will be less focused on governance and human rights issues, as Armenia will hopefully have solved most of these issues. From there I’d like to see our office transform into an innovation hub that helps drive the IT industry and social innovation scene. That’s where I see things going. Already, the UN in Armenia is seen as a global leader in the field of social innovation. We can already demonstrate to the rest of the world how it should be developed. Seriously, Armenia should be proud of that!