In the aftermath of the 2018 Armenian revolution, pressing systemic challenges exist on different levels, causing serious disadvantages especially for the low-income, rural population engaged in farming activities in the regions outside Yerevan. In this situation, different types of policies and partnerships – a new governance framework for transition – is needed to put an end to amateurish politics and financial inefficiencies.
A common framework for sustainable transition should be developed to bring varying policies into coherence, set common goals over different sectors related to food security and sustainable agriculture and rule out hidden costs such as those caused by the individual preferences of policymakers. In this frame, by shifting the focus from agriculture to food, and acknowledging the right to food, a wider range of actors representing the policy arena, research and education system and practitioners engaged in farming activities can be meaningfully involved in designing and assessing policies.
To be able to develop a common transition framework and implement sustainable institutional changes, some clear values, political ideologies and human-centric visions of Armenia’s future development are needed. The 2018 Armenian revolution marked a victory in the people’s fight against the quasi-neoliberal economic hegemony and politics implemented by quasi-conservative politicians in the interest of a capitalist oligarchy and hidden criminal mechanisms. This political culture has largely affected the perception of agriculture (as a business) and caused a democratic deficit in food systems, for instance through monopolies on food export and import markets. The Armenian people’s democratic movement in 2018 was a clear sign that a new political agenda and functioning institutions (including laws and bodies) are needed to realize the concepts and values of freedom, security and justice enshrined in the Armenian Constitution. The anticipated changes in the overall system would, among other things, result in more social equity in the farming sector, democratic food systems and sustainable ecosystems.
Absence of Ideology, Contradictory Policies
Today’s politicians responsible for the democratic and sustainable transition of food systems and the development of the agricultural sector largely avoid claiming to represent any political position (ideology) regarding their strategies and structural reform processes. As a result, each actor and authority is trying to design and implement policies and strategies in accordance with the knowledge, ideas and “dreams” of the leading figures in their respective sectors. However, regardless of the attempts to escape from conservatism, liberalism, socialism and any other “-ism,” political players are now implementing a mixture of contradictory policies based on ideologies varying from traditional social democracy and liberal capitalism to post-neoliberalism and modernism. This “non-ideological” mix of policies is strongly reflected in the country’s economic sphere and especially in the agricultural sector, causing serious challenges to meeting society’s present food needs without compromising the position of future generations.
On October 29, 2019, the new state budget for the development of agriculture in 2020 was presented and discussed in Armenia’s parliament. The main message running through the subsequent discussion was that the responsible policymakers have to both urgently rethink their political views and positions and redefine their own role in the entire food system. In 2020, 19.2 billion AMD (over 40 million USD) will be spent implementing seven fragmented projects that target ambiguous and unclear repetitive results in the agricultural sector. For example, the proposed smart farm project, which is excessively costly to the public budget, has shown little demand among livestock producers; less than 10 percent of those involved in training activities are interested in implementing the idea of a smart farm, even with state subsidies and support. In addition, there is no ultimate goal, ideological basis or unifying thread running through the intended pilot projects and initiatives. In fact, one can get the impression that political representatives in this sector perceive their role as agents of foreign businesses or development agencies acting in Armenia without any state development agenda and vision for long term sustainable development.
Although some pressing challenges – such as the need for immediate institutional changes and the alarmingly low education level of those engaged in agriculture – were highlighted and discussed during the budget presentation, no concrete actions will be taken to address these challenges holistically during the upcoming year. Instead, people involved in farming activities were blamed for being illiterate and indolent. Although state authorities will continue to spend billions of AMD from the public purse for implementing these projects, the desired development in this sector cannot be realized, even over the next decade. It is obvious that the responsible policymakers, with their industrialization and business strategies, top-down approaches and quasi-neoliberal orientation, fail to implement inclusive and sustainable reform strategies and policies in the agricultural sector.
At a forum called “What to Do: Economic Revolution – Perception and Execution” on October 9, 2019, Prime Minister Pashinyan argued that the principle of Adam Smith’s invisible hand is not always the best scenario for economic development and that importance should be placed on the right political decisions and vision of policymakers regarding the country’s economic development perspectives. While talking about industrial (technological) economic development, Pashinyan announced that, if the pre-set political direction fails to demonstrate deliberate modifications and development, then policymakers need to have the courage to change their positions, concepts and strategies. This approach is a clear message that a paradigm shift is needed away from the rather top-down approaches of the past to a more participatory and inclusive approach, in which people involved in the agricultural sector (especially in farming activities) are empowered and integrated into the democratic transition process.
Applying a Multi-Stakeholder Systemic Approach
Although policymakers are crucially important due to their agenda-shaping power, there is currently a particular need to integrate practitioners, as well as scientists and researchers, into the development process of a new governance framework for transition. Therefore, a multi-stakeholder systemic approach has to be applied that will provide policymakers with a holistic perspective on knowledge and innovation processes in the agricultural sector by considering all interests and actors involved. A new human-centered and problem-focused perspective has to be developed that takes the real needs of farming communities and other practitioners as a starting point for any development and innovation processes. Moreover, sustainable agriculture should be the only goal of this new approach to guarantee people’s right to food and meet society’s current food needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Thus, even if politicians avoid positioning themselves under any kind of “-ism,” the basic principles valid throughout the whole food system should be social and economic equity, a healthy environment and viable economic development. These three dimensions of sustainability (3D-Sustainability) are embedded in one another, with the environment setting the overall context and the economy being only an integral part of the society (see Figure 1).
The new development vision of the Armenian government targeting the agricultural sector has to focus on democratic food systems, social equity and sustainable ecosystems. In other words, economic development should be carefully balanced between environmental, cultural and social needs, building on these three dimensions of sustainability. The new governance framework for transition has to respond to contemporary challenges by creating a democratic decision-making environment in all sub-sectors and addressing real societal issues (e.g. food security) in a sustainable manner. Relevant policymakers, such as those responsible for food security and agriculture in Armenia, should be able to analyse the key determinants of sustainable economic development, including their own and other actors’ roles, interactions and relationships as well as the socio-economic context and the political and cultural conditions that affect the rules of the game in order to better plan their activities, policies or interventions. They should perceive their own role as being responsible for the wellbeing of every single person in the Armenian agricultural sector. Moreover, they should be invested in the sustainable development of the entire food system and able to facilitate democratic interactions between all the actors involved in this sector.
Figure 1: The 3D Sustainability Approach for Development.
Actors in the Armenian policy arena related to the food system that have a mandate for the development of agriculture range from the national decision-making level to sub-national governance and local policymakers (community administration). At the national level, the main actors are the Parliament with its Standing Committee on Territorial Administration, Local Self-Government, Agriculture and Environment, and the Armenian Government (executive) with its Ministry of Economy (which has been tasked with coordinating the agricultural sector) and other relevant line ministries, such as the Ministry for Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, Ministry of Environment, etc. In addition, there are several state agencies, inspectors and committees responsible for food security and safety, agricultural statistics, irrigation water governance, land mapping and registration, and other similar issues relevant to the development of the agricultural sector and food security.
Overlapping Bodies, Vague Mandates
For instance, some of these actors are the Food Safety Inspectorate, the Statistical Committee, the State Water Committee, the Cadastre Committee, etc. At the regional, county level (marzes), the national government is represented through the massive structure of regional governments as the first-level administrative division. These bodies are responsible for implementing the national food security and agricultural policies at the regional level, e.g. disseminating agricultural knowledge and innovations or initiating phytosanitary and plant protection interventions. The governors (marzpets) are appointed by the national government. Each region has a deliberative body, the regional council, consisting of the elected heads of communities (i.e. mayors) and the regional governor (though, regional councils carry only consultative power). The devolution process currently taking place in Armenia is expected to straighten out the executive functions of the regional governments and clarify their designated tasks and mandates. Finally, at the second-level administrative division, there are 503 municipal communities  (46 urban and 457 rural), governed by elected heads of communities (mayors) and local councils. These positions are elected for five year terms and have an immense role to play in the decentralized development of the country, particularly in the rural areas.
Due to unclear visions and stances (ideologies), facilitation structures, and the delegation of responsibilities, Armenian policy actors have varying functions and sometimes vague mandates in the entire food system, which was obvious during the presentation of the new state budget for agriculture in October. For example, it was announced that about 191 million AMD (approximately 400 thousand USD) will be allocated in 2020 to the Ministry of Economy for the expenditures of the State Food Safety Inspectorate, but the respective ministry has no mandate to ensure the accountability of this authority’s activities by monitoring and evaluating the implementation of its programs related to these public investments. There is an immense gap not only between different policy, practice and research actors, but also among the policy arena decision-makers themselves (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Missing Partnerships Between Policy-Practice-Research Actors.
Creating a Human-Centered Governance Framework
New policy arena decision-makers require a coherent, coordinated approach that had been lacking under the previous Republican Party-led government due to its strong hierarchical order, tolerance for corruption and discontinuities in their design and evaluation of interventions. Also, the necessary harmonization and inter-sectoral communication among policy actors is largely missing, which leads to duplications in budgeting and errors in the entire system. Thus, as an important first step toward good governance and sustainability in the agricultural sector, an Armenian Food, Agriculture and Development Council (a so-called “Green Council for Development”) should be established as a multi-stakeholder platform comprised of all the actors of the policy arena (Figure 2), representatives of the research and education system, and practitioners engaged in everyday farming activities. Creating a human-centered governance framework for transition toward food security, democratic food systems, social equity and sustainable ecosystems will be the main agenda of this council, allowing greater participation and accountability among all the actors involved in the agricultural sector. From a political point of view, this multi-stakeholder platform should be able to meet major challenges hindering the improvement of food security and the democratic development of food systems, including the lack of clear political (ideological) positions; an erroneous understanding of concepts, approaches and systems; the need for a coherent and innovation-friendly policy and regulatory environment; the lack of institutions; and the misperception of roles and mandates. Moving towards integrated food policies can remedy the democratic deficit in food systems and rebalance power. At the same time, by shifting the focus from commercial agriculture (and related sectoral policies) to food, a wider range of actors can be meaningfully involved in designing and assessing policies.
To sum up, a different type of approaches and policies – a governance framework for transition – is needed to overcome food security challenges and develop a human-centered sustainable development vision for Armenia. Only integrated policies and strategies with a long-term vision and a mandate to address the whole system can drive the coordinated shifts that are required across food production, processing, distribution and consumption. Moreover, a consolidated version of existing agricultural legislation into one manageable law and a common food and agriculture policy would allow short- and long-term objectives to be clearly distinguished, trade-offs to be weighed, the long-term costs and benefits (or “externalities”) to be captured, accountability to be allocated and the effectiveness of reforms to be regularly assessed against the agreed objectives.
Developing a long-term common food and agriculture policy vision also goes hand-in-hand with realizing the right to food, which requires the adoption of a strategy integrating policy approaches, allocating responsibilities and improving coordination between different governance levels, and allowing participation and accountability. This kind of integrated, pathway thinking was invoked by Prime Minister Pashinyan when he called on the Government and the National Assembly to map out a timeline to 2050 with steps towards an overarching sustainable development vision for Armenia.