YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Poverty in Armenia has declined in recent years much more rapidly than was anticipated by the government and currently affects less than 27 percent of the population, government officials said on Monday.
At least half of Armenia’s were believed to live below the official poverty line when the authorities in Yerevan launched a Western-backed program to tackle the problem in 2001. The program envisaged that economic growth and higher government spending on social programs would reduce the poverty rate to 26.5 percent by 2012.
Citing faster-than-expected growth, the government now claims to have already met that target last year and plans to make major changes in its poverty reduction strategy. According to a draft-revised version of that program unveiled last month, the poverty rate will drop to 12 percent in 2012 and 9 percent in 2015. The government has asked Armenian non-governmental organizations dealing with the matter to weigh in on the new targets and its proposed ways of meeting them.
NGO representatives have long questioned the government’s methodology of gauging the scale of poverty in the country. They believe, in particular, that the official poverty threshold of about 22,000 drams ($71) per person is set too low and does not reflect the increased cost of life in Armenia.
These and other misgivings re-surfaced at a roundtable discussion on the issue organized by the government on Monday. One of the participants, sociologist Hran’sh Kharatian, insisted that poverty in rural regions of Armenia has actually increased in the past few years. "Macroeconomic indicators show both increased consumption and production gains in villages," she said. "But in fact, people have become more impoverished."
Kharatian said research conducted by her Hazarashen organization found a growing income gap between a small number of big landowners and the rest of the rural population.
Karine Danielian, a former environment minister who leads an NGO called For Sustainable Human Development, described the revised poverty reduction program as an improvement over the previous document. But she too had reservations about its content. "I wish the program set much more specific goals and really targeted people who are really poor at the moment," she told RFE/RL.
Hovannes Azizian, an official in charge of the poverty reduction drive, said the government will hold more such discussions before approving the final version of the program next month.