Nagorno-Karabakh’s Displaced Population Needs Entrepreneurship Now More Than Ever

10/10/2023
Image Credit: BBC
Image Credit: BBC

More than 100,000 Armenians have fled Artsakh into Armenia proper in the last weeks, fearing ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan. It is doubtful they will return to their homes since the Nagorno-Karabakh territory will be fully signed over to Azerbaijan on January 1, 2024. That means there are now 100,000 people who need housing, food, utilities, and ways to financially support themselves in their new lives in Armenia. They've had to start their lives anew as a result of having everything violently taken from them.

Many kind Armenians have opened their doors to take in families or individuals and offer them free temporary housing in their time of need. I myself offered up my house's two bedrooms, though no one has taken me up on this offer yet, likely because the house is located so remotely. Most displaced Artsakhi Armenians seem intent on settling in Yerevan, the capital city already facing an influx of housing demand from Russians who recently immigrated to Armenia.

Wanting to be in the capital makes sense. Many of these people probably have family they want to be near in the city. Many have been traumatized by Azerbaijan's attacks and don't want to risk being anywhere near the border again. Others erroneously assume that being in a city means having access to jobs and economic opportunities by default. It's a similar assumption I've heard about the idea of moving to the United States of America. Many people from developing countries think that it's as simple as showing up hat-in-hand in a prosperous American city and instantly being given a cushy job and a comfortable place to live. Many assume that the only reason I make money at all is because I'm American, which means I carry intangible American privilege everywhere I go that magically generates income and a high standard of living for me.

The Armenian government, meanwhile, has offered 100,000 dram (about $250 USD) as a one-time payment for each displaced person. It won't last long, and the newly christened refugee population of Armenia will soon need to find ways to support themselves or join the 13.7% of the population that is already unemployed or the 26.5% that already lives in poverty.

Since it's clear there already weren't enough jobs to go around for the existing population of Armenia proper, the smartest thing recently displaced people can do is stop waiting for someone to give them one. What's the alternative to someone giving you a job? Creating one yourself. You do this by offering people something they want or improving the process through which they acquire what they want. But embracing this long-term systemic perspective on their ability to produce wealth for themselves and establish prosperous lives under their new circumstances will require them to step away from the short-term survival and victim mindset they are likely currently facing. They will have to focus on how their various knowledge, skills, and other resources can be applied entrepreneurially to generate ongoing wealth for themselves and others without someone else figuring this all out for them and offering them a fixed place to be productive and get paid in return.

However, actually teaching these principles to Armenians has proven incredibly difficult, even under ordinary conditions, aside from the occasional divergent young person obsessed with learning and improving themselves. I fear that most Artsaki refugees will only see themselves as victims and go on to repeat a cycle of dependence on help from others instead of realizing that it is in their power to improve their own lives, now and into the long-term future. They will wait for "the system" to fix things for them instead of trying to control their futures.

Living in Kalavan village these last few years has been an interesting experience in seeing the blatant difference between how Armenians talk about entrepreneurship and self-determination compared to the reality they live every day. You can only live out of alignment with reality for so long, however. Reality eventually creeps up on you, and the truth cashes the checks you write to it. In times of great personal struggle, when it seems that perhaps the whole order of life has been upended, is when we have the greatest opportunity to reflect on how we are living and begin to fundamentally change things. That is the opportunity facing those who have been forced out of their homes by the violence of Azerbaijan and made to start again in Armenia.

Proactively Seeking Out Opportunities to Serve Others' Needs

When I first moved to Kalavan in 2019, the house I purchased was quite old and in a state of disrepair. I needed to hire at least a few experienced handymen and construction workers to help clean it up and modernize it. The grocery stores in town were far away and inconvenient to shop from, so I needed the means to purchase common food staples from people who grew or raised them locally. I didn't have a car yet, so I needed some reliable options for whom I could hire to drive me into town until I could procure one. And, most importantly, I needed someone to speak the local Armenian language with me and teach me the basic grammar and vocabulary so that I could begin to communicate effectively on my own with my neighbors. I began spreading the word that I was looking to hire people for all of the above, fully expecting that it would not take long until locals from Kalavan or the surrounding villages showed up at my door or called me eager for work.

To my frustration, months went by with virtually zero interest being shown by anyone in the Kalavan or the surrounding areas in taking me up on the jobs I offered. It didn't compute in my head. I knew there had to be many people looking for work. I knew that many of them had the skills and experience to do the things I needed. What was missing was a sense of urgency and motivation to spread awareness of this obvious match between what I wanted and what they could provide: demand and supply.

There was no primary channel through which to make these opportunities known to the people who would be best suited for them. So, the few people who ended up hearing about the work I needed performed had no convenient way to get the necessary details or investigate things for themselves to see if they were still available or appropriate for them. All they heard was that there was an American now living in the area who needed some vague work done on his house. They did not know who I was, where exactly my house was located, what kind of work I needed, the amount I would pay, how long the job would last, if there were other people already interested in the job, if I would be providing the necessary tools and materials, or how serious I was about the offer at all.

As a result, my various job opportunities went unfulfilled for more than six months until a curious neighbor, who I happened to be talking to for unrelated reasons, brought the subject up out of the blue and asked if I happened to still need some work done on my house. I told him that yes, indeed, almost no work had been performed for the six months I had been publicly seeking workers. As soon as he learned the details of the job, he seemed surprised, just about as surprised as I was, that people weren't jumping at the opportunity I had been offering. He came by my house the following day, we worked out the terms of the job over the course of a single conversation, and he got to work right away at a rate significantly higher than what he had been making previously by alternate means to support himself.

It is partially a tragic sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps Armenians are so used to opportunities being scarce and unreliable that they have stopped looking for them. What would be the point in setting up an elaborate communication network to spread knowledge of new economic opportunities if they could assume ahead of time that nothing noteworthy would come from it?

Takeaway: Don't assume that the obvious, visible opportunities you are most aware of are the only ones available to you. You have to be willing to investigate all the ways you are in a position to help others get something they value, something they would be happy to pay you for, even (and especially) if you don't see anyone else doing the same thing. Because so few people are willing to even ask questions like this or seek things out for themselves, it could give you a powerful advantage over the majority of people who sit, content to wait for opportunities to show up at their door or for the proverbial "system" to take care of things for them.

Investing in Resources for the Long-term Future

When I was finally able to hire a small team of workers to begin renovating the old home I bought in Kalavan, I was surprised to learn that most of them did not own their own tools, even though they had been doing various kinds of construction work for years. I learned they had been provided tools to work with by their employers for the duration of the jobs they worked. So, they naturally expected me to do the same for them, which I ended up doing. I purchased thousands of dollars in power and hand tools like a table saw, cordless drill and impact driver, sledgehammer, and many others when I moved here because I foresaw that I would be able to produce greater wealth by having them than the money required for the investment of purchasing them.

It appears to me that my workers were stuck in an old cultural mentality that instructs them to hide away whatever money they manage to make for fear that in the future, they might lack an income source and need to survive on it. They didn't see that the tools they hesitated to spend their limited resources on would allow them to take control of how they apply their skills to produce more wealth for themselves in the long run. They were so worried about taking care of the needs of the present that they couldn't speculate even a little about what needs would come in the future and how they could take measures to preemptively solve them now.

Tools of any kind are investments we make in the long-term future because we foresee ways we will be able to profitably employ them over and over again. The better we know ourselves, our values, and our abilities, the better we will be able to predict what productive resources will be most worth investing in. Even if it takes a little while, we can be confident that we will eventually generate more wealth from them than it costs to acquire them. Without the willingness to take that risk, we will remain forever stuck in a limited, short-term worldview of basic survival.

Takeaway: Right now, Artsakhi refugees are understandably focused on immediate survival. Many are just worried about making it through the coming days, weeks, and months with a roof over their families' heads. But once those immediate problems are solved, to where should their attention turn? The long-term future. They can begin to think now about how productive they can start to be by acquiring the tools and various capital goods that will enable to start supporting themselves.

The Trap of Copying Others

A friend here in Kalavan once expressed to me an interest in starting a local cheese business. I was initially surprised by this because I was not aware that he had any particular knowledge about making cheese or the mechanics of distributing and selling it to his intended market. I did not even know that he particularly liked cheese at all. It turned out that my friend had not really put any thought into the possibilities for the types of cheese he could produce or who his intended market of buyers would be.

I made it my mission to challenge my friend's line of thinking a little bit and open up his mind to more possibilities for the types of income streams he could generate and businesses he could run. I told him that, sure, he could go into the cheese business, but it would probably cost him many thousands of dollars in startup costs for the machinery he would have to purchase and all the certifications he would have to acquire from the State before he could start producing, not to mention the work that would have to go into packaging and branding his product before he presented it to consumers.

I asked my friend why he didn't consider going into business with something he understood better than cheese, something he had a natural passion for and would therefore better enjoy learning how to overcome the challenges associated with it… Something for which increasing his knowledge and skillset through experience would be genuinely enjoyable as well as financially rewarding, something like carpentry and furniture making, which I knew he had the skill and experience for. He answered me that the reason he couldn't go into professional carpentry because he lacked the tools he would need to do it and didn't want to risk money acquiring them on a business that might not work out.

How was it that this man had been prepared to risk thousands of dollars on starting a cheese business, including all its costly machinery, supplies, and certifications, but considered it out of the question to spend considerably less on the equipment he would need to start making furniture? I realized that the answer had something to do with the ideas implanted in him by his culture. No one had ever given him permission, whether implicit or explicit, to start a furniture business. He did not see anyone in a similar position to him attempting to do it, so it was not part of his paradigm. His perspective of opportunities was limited by what he could directly observe, not what he could infer might be possible.

There would be, of course, many questions he would have to find answers to before he could confidently assume that making and selling furniture would be profitable and that he would easily recuperate the costs required to get started. But they are all questions he could have found the answers to. He just had to believe it was possible to apply his knowledge and skills in ways that weren't immediately obvious in the local economy.

Takeaway: If you limit yourself to the economic opportunities you already see other people taking advantage of, you will miss countless others that might prove to be far more valuable and rewarding to you. Risk is a terrifying prospect for most Armenians, and they unfortunately make the mistake of thinking that just because everyone is doing something, that must mean it's the best or only way to do it. In reality, it might just mean that there's no reason for you to do more of the same when there are so many other avenues that others aren't exploring. You could increase the size of the available pie instead of fighting others over every little crumb.

Optimizing Economic Exchange for Everyone

Every resident of Kalavan produces a variety of goods or has cultivated a variety of skills, most of which are strictly applied for their own family's consumption. They grow vegetables or raise animals to feed themselves. They build their own furniture or work on their homes as needed with their potpourri of construction-adjacent skills. They milk their own cows and goats, ferment their own yogurt, press their own juices, and distill their own vodka. They have a plethora of self-reliance home skills that would make most people who grow up in the West, where almost everything comes in a package from a supermarket shelf, feel envious and incapable by comparison.

Opening a small shop in the center of the village where everyone who lived here could sell the things they produce, like fruit, vegetables, vodka, wine, meat, eggs, and milk, to each other and the tourist visitors that they want to encourage to come stay, would optimize the currently inefficient process of exchanging valuable goods and services among each other. Also, all residents of Kalavan depend on regular hour-long trips to Dilijan or Ijevan to secure the necessities they cannot produce locally for themselves. Having one entrepreneurial actor procure the things everyone here regularly buys in advance and making them locally available at all times would offer a major advantage to the people living here and encourage an increase in other types of economic activity as well.

Sometimes, if you give people easy and convenient options for buying things, even things they might not have realized they wanted until they saw the opportunity to acquire them, you increase the chances that they will buy those things. That's why we call them "convenience stores" in the West. There are usually other ways to get the common goods sold at convenience stores (and usually even at slightly cheaper prices), but the location and selection offered make it far more convenient for people to just grab the few things they need at the little shop on the corner.

Over the last few years in Kalavan, I have had many private conversations with tourists who would gush over the beautiful scenery and the appeal of the quiet village life. Still, they would confess to me how inconvenient it was that they had to bring all the food and other consumable goods they needed with them for the duration of their stay because, despite being surrounded by food producers, they didn't know where to get such things in an easy fashion. Some actually cut their intended stay in the village short for simple and easily avoidable reasons like that they ran out of cigarettes and fresh vegetables and didn't know where to get more except to drive an hour back into town. At that point, it was easier just to end the trip than to deal with the logistics of making back-and-forth trips to grab things they had reasonably assumed would be available here.

Takeaway: Look for opportunities to improve and optimize existing processes of economic exchange around you. Whenever you can help someone get what they already want in a more efficient or effective way, there's an opportunity to profit from doing so. Opening a store where there isn't one is one way to centralize and systemize basic exchange that is currently more costly than it needs to be. There are countless other ways to improve the way people around you attempt to get the things they want, and you don't need to go into business offering a new product or service of your own to do this.

The Power of Agency

Economic education is vital, but not enough to change people's behavior. They need confidence in their ability to make a difference by boldly trying something new. What, if you had to, could you do to apply your existing skills and knowledge in some way to produce something of value and sell it for a worthwhile amount? Or to somehow transform something someone else produced and add value to it? Or could you even just take advantage of your expertise in some area by moving something desirable from a position of low value to a higher one and profiting from the difference? There is never only one way to fill any given needs held by people. There are also always new needs to uncover.

The key to helping people reach a state of sustainable economic self-determination lies in unlocking the belief that it is within their power to take control of their own lives, regardless of what obstacles they've had to contend with and whatever tragedies have befallen them.

This narrative of entrepreneurial empowerment is not one the majority of Armenians are ready to align themselves with, however. The victim mentality still carried over from last century haunts them. They believe they cannot solve their problems themselves. They are not aligning with a social and physical reality that continues to march forward without them and may soon leave them behind.

However, I have personally seen how Armenians can be quite clever and opportunistic. They often see uncommon solutions to common problems. They can be sharp and creative when they need to. Being 25% Armenian myself, I've often wondered if this is where I got some of my signature cleverness and tenacity from. What would benefit the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh (and Armenians in general) most now is a strengthened sense of personal agency: the power to take responsibility for the outcome of their lives, where the fear of failure does not defeat them before they've even started.

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