“Hayastan” All-Armenian Fund made an announcement in the summer of 2011 about launching a new project, which appeared controversial to me. The target was the Stepanakert Retirement Home, which was scheduled to undergo an extensive renovation thanks to a generous donation of $400 thousand from Armen Shakhazizyan, a Moscow-based industrialist, as reported by the Fund’s blog. With the Artsakh government co-financing the project, the cost of that proposed major facelift is probably over a half a million dollars.
One statement in the press release raised question marks over the Fund’s trustworthiness and the expediency of the project: “The two wings of the Stepanakert Retirement Home were last upgraded in 1988.” This is an outright false statement. The retirement home had been extensively remodeled in 1999 by the AGBU.
The official website of the AGBU lists all the projects implemented by the Union in Armenia; among them is the following: “Renovation of the Stepanakert house for elderly people, with 55 permanent residents and 150 aged people under custody.” The retirement home was remodeled with the remaining funds, initially allocated for the renovation of Alex Manoogian Street in Stepanakert. I have firsthand information from Louise Manoogian Simone that about $400 thousand from the street renovation was reallocated for the reconstruction of the retirement home, thanks to the recommendation of the Artsakh Government to the donor.
I immediately brought this omission to the attention of Vardan Partamyan, Head of the HAAF Projects and External Relations Department, Louise Manoogian Simone, and the AGBU.
Following my query, the description of the initiative at the Fund’s ongoing projects page was modified to give credit to Louise Manoogian Simone: “The building, where the Stepanakert nursing home is located now was built in 1970 s. The nursing home moved here in 1999 after the reconstruction of the building with the support of Louis Simon Manukyan” (sic). However, HAAF staff must have forgotten to make a correction in the Armenian version, as well. Her contribution remains unattributed also in an alternative version of the project description used for the press release and the blog.
The AGBU staff confirmed having implemented the renovation at the turn of the 20th century, however, Louise Manoogian Simone, who quit the HAAF Board of Trustees in 2009, was quite apathetic upon receiving the news. What I discovered later online confirmed my impression of an atmosphere of lethargy at AGBU today. I was surprised to find that same press release of HAAF about the reconstruction of the retirement home in the AGBU Armenian News Bulletin without any modification or a comment on the obvious distortion of the truth.
Why did HAAF fail to mention a more recent major makeover that cost $400 thousand dollars? How badly was it done 10 years ago to require nothing less than another more expensive major reconstruction today? Was the building bombed in post-war Stepanakert?
If, indeed, the construction company did a poor job back in 1999, and therefore Louise Manoogian Simone’s $400 thousand was wasted, then I would expect the Artsakh government to go after the contractor and those responsible for implementing and overseeing the project, namely the construction company and the Artsakh government itself. But nothing was done, thus I must ask if, in fact, there is a need for a major renovation.
To better understand how $400 thousand translates into the reconstruction of the retirement home, here is general information about its physical dimensions, according to HAAF:
The nursing home is a complex, which includes two 2 storey residential buildings with 40 rooms, the events hall block, laundry and canteen blocks. There is no separate kitchen. The kitchen occupies some part of the canteen area. There are 78 residents in the nursing home, who are not only aged people, but there are also handicapped people in this institution.
According to a general description of the project, the amount of $400 thousand dollars is expected to cover:
- Replacement of the doors and windows;
- Replacement of the engineering communications;
- Transformation of the events hall into a canteen wing;
- Construction of a new kitchen wing right next to the canteen wing;
- Installation of a sanitary unit in all 40 rooms;
- Replacement of the roofs;
- Inner and outer furnishings;
- Installation of a heating system.
The retirement home has 40 rooms, which means there are at least 40 windows and doors. How many of these doors and windows are in poor condition? To have a better idea about the real need for renovation, I had a friend take photographs of the building as it looked before the renovation. Judging from the photos, not all of them are in poor condition. However, I would like to focus particularly on the last three items: roofs, and inner and outer furnishings, and heating systems.
Why was replacement preferred over repair particularly for the roof? It is very unlikely for a tin roof to wear out to such an extent as to require replacement, which is quite costly. The photos do not show a roof in such a poor condition that it must be replaced. Certain segments might need some repair, such as the downspout of the gutter at the left end of the roof in the photo.
What are inner and outer furnishings? By the time the photographer got there, the construction workers had begun breaking and scraping the cement off the outer walls. In fact, the cement was so solid and firmly adhered to the wall that it was very difficult to remove. The construction workers refused to comment on the decision to strip the outside walls. However, a resident told the photographer: “These guys are tearing off the cement with their teeth. I don’t know why they do this. They’re probably making money out of this.” Why waste so much money to cement the walls all over again, if damages and cracks could be fixed and a fresh coat of paint would suffice? Patching and a fresh coat of paint would also be enough for the inside of the buildings. All that money wasted on duplicate cement could cover the cost of basic furniture needs of the retirement home.
The sanitary upgrades are yet another costly initiative of this project. One bathroom per floor may not be enough; however, one in each of the 40 rooms is a little too much. Even the vast majority of nursing homes in the U.S. do not have a sanitary unit in every room. A more sensible solution would be to build up to 3-4 large bathrooms on each floor and replenish the fleet of wheelchairs to accommodate mobility-challenged people. Another solution would be to build restrooms only in 3-4 rooms for the most physically challenged residents.
HAAF claims the building has no heating system. First of all, it is hard to believe that a shelter of the most cold-sensitive people would lack a heating system. Secondly, I have a clear photo of a radiator in the corner of one of the hallways of the retirement home. The same type of radiators with a central heating system was installed in the 11-story residential building intended for war veterans, widows, and the Stepanakert Chess School. Funded by the AGBU ($650,000) and co-sponsored by the Artsakh government ($350,000), the construction of this building was completed around the same time as the renovation of the retirement home, where identical heating systems were installed. Thirdly, in the photo, one can see that in a hallway with smooth walls there is a lonely crack right behind the radiator. I have an almost identical crack behind a radiator in my house in Martuni. This type of crack is usually the consequence of simultaneous expansion and contraction, due to extreme heat from a radiator and freezing cold from the outside, in winter.
Even if these recommendations for economical spending were disregarded, the allocated funds still seem to be an overestimation of the actual costs of the renovation. The allocated sum of money is so large for mere remodeling, that HAAF appears to have used its creativity to justify the “generosity” of funding. I have to guess why the costs and needs have to be exaggerated to meet the allocated money, and not vice versa. Clearly, this is an example of a project that was already done and, at best, might require a light remodeling with paint and repairs for a fraction of the cost of the renovation in progress.
About a decade ago, the Artsakh government made a decision to demolish the dilapidated rat-infested apartment buildings in Stepanakert and replace them with modern housing structures for people living there. About three years ago, this program was interrupted allegedly due to lack of funding. In this context, the news of the government readily co-funding a project of a redundant reconstruction is outrageous.
Ara K. Manoogian is a human rights activist representing the Shahan Natalie Family Foundation in Artsakh and Armenia; a Fellow of the Washington-based Policy Forum Armenia (PFA); creator of www.thetruthmustbetold.com and author of the white paper “To Donate Or Not to Donate”, an in-depth study on the activities of the “Hayastan” All-Armenian Fund