I have spent the past few years working in the post-Soviet republic of Armenia. Sandwiched between Turkey, Georgia, Iran and Azerbaijan, Armenia is an ancient nation that has survived centuries of conquest and genocide. After 70 years as part of the Soviet Union, Armenia gained independence in 1991.
Armenia’s road to independence and beyond, however, has been a rocky one. An earthquake, war, refugees, famine and economic collapse have been exacerbated by the ongoing problems of large-scale emigration, political opportunism and corruption. As a result, Armenia can best be described as a nation in trauma.
In my work among Armenia’s youth, I have seen much to encourage me. Yet alongside the stories of hope and triumph, there are the stories of failure and self-destruction that are just as real. There are days when I feel like throwing in the towel and coming home. So what keeps me going? The answer is hope – but not a "wishful thinking" kind of hope.
Rather, it is the hope that comes from my firm belief in the possibility of social change. As a way of "concretising" this belief, I have drawn up a list of what I call the Ten Principles of Social Action – principles that, if implemented, will lead to deep-rooted social change. I cannot claim full originality for these principles; rather, they are drawn from various historical models of social action, as embodied in people such as Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
I believe that the first and most fundamental principle of social action is that social change is in fact possible. Lois Brandeis has said that: "Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done." Many Armenians are convinced that social action was tried, tested and failed during the independence movement of 1987-1991. However, if it is true that those who govern do so by the consent of the governed, then there is a huge force in Armenia that has yet to be unleashed for the purpose of radical social change.
Second, any social action must first start with our selves. I often hear from Armenians that, if only the government would change, things would improve. However, the recognition that social change must start with our selves is both liberating and empowering. In contrast, to place the blame for all of society’s ills on politicians and big business is to disempower the oppressed and make them dependant on the actions of the "big end of town" to deliver them from their problems.
The third principle of social action is that one person can and does make a difference. In a society such as Armenia, disempowerment is considered the norm, an inevitable state of affairs. In such an environment, it requires double courage for an individual or group to take the first step towards social change. But it only takes a few people who are willing to act contrary to the tide to encourage others to act.
The fourth principle of social action is that change almost always starts with small things. The way we do the "little" things is an indicator of our capacity to do the bigger things. Social change cannot be achieved without the willingness to go through the hard slog of incremental, small-scale change.
The fifth principle of social action is that, although social action starts small and with one person, ultimately collective effort and mass action are needed for stronger, more effective and long term social change. In my work among young professionals in Armenia, I have found that the most important step that is taken in the development of a community project is when the project moves from being one person’s dream to a team effort. The sense of community, the ability to work together and the sense of common values that is developed in this process provide the "building blocks" of the new society that is envisaged.
The sixth principle of social action is that any change comes at a cost. There is always a person (or persons) who have paid a price for the freedoms and privileges we enjoy today. On all counts there is a great personal cost to getting involved in social action. Yet the cost of not getting involved is higher – that is, the cost to our conscience, and the cost to those around us whose liberation depends on our actions.
The seventh principle of social action is that the means are as important as the ends. In response to the suggestion that terrorist tactics should be adopted in the campaign against the British, Gandhi argued that a democratic order could not be established through violence: "The spirit of democracy cannot be established in the midst of terrorism, whether governmental or popular."
On 27 October 1999, five gunmen stormed into the Armenian National Assembly and killed the Prime Minister, President of the Parliament and six deputies. The assassins called upon the Armenian people to rise up against the country’s leadership; instead, the assassinations simply compounded and entrenched the sense of public demoralisation. Violent acts rarely lead to their intended result. If the goal of social action is the creation of a more just, egalitarian, peaceful and harmonious social order, then violence is not an appropriate means to achieving this end.