Last month, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called for renewed ties between the Armenian Diaspora and the homeland. His cabinet voted to close the Ministry of Diaspora and vest its responsibilities to a newly-created High Commissioner of Diaspora Affairs. The Prime Minister entrusted the High Commission with two tasks: to map out a strategy for effective partnership with the Diaspora and to create a unified platform to coordinate dialogue between Armenians across the world and Yerevan.
Two weeks ago, I argued that Armenia ought to promptly implement an e-governance strategy on a blockchain-based ecosystem following the model set by Estonia’s X-Road. This innovation would immediately reduce service-delivery expenses, cut red tape, create a more dynamic bureaucracy and a satisfied citizenry. Instantly-collected and securely-shared data would allow for more precise government investments in various social and economic sectors.
E-Gov services do not need to be limited to Armenian citizens, however. The High Commission on Diaspora Affairs could find use for the same digital infrastructure in its quest to complete the tasks set forth by the Prime Minister.
To foster increased Diaspora engagement with the homeland, we can turn to another Estonian innovation for guidance: e-Residency.
This revolutionary concept was launched back in 2014 by government consultant and tech visionary Taavi Kotka as the next step to Estonia’s suite of e-government services. Directed primarily at location-independent entrepreneurs, the issuing of e-Residency digital identity cards facilitated the establishment of a bank account, the registration of a company and tax declaration in Estonia remotely.
The e-Residency program proved to be a runaway success for Estonia. In the five years since the program was launched, over 48 thousand entrepreneurs from 168 countries founded over six thousand new companies virtually. I’m proud to be part of that statistic. I was one of the first 100 people to receive e-residency status, meaning I could manage one of my ventures registered in Tallinn from my smartphone from the Yerevan tax office waiting in line to stamp papers for my Armenian business.
E-residency has generated over 18 million € ($20.2 million) in income for Estonia since its launch. The indirect benefits, which include increased tourism, private services fees, employment and taxation are even higher. The Estonian government is already working on E-Residency 2.0. There is no reason Armenia cannot follow suit with comparable results.
The challenges for Armenia’s new authorities, however, are two-fold. First, they must regain the diaspora’s trust after nearly three decades of malfeasance and accusations of profiteering. Second, they need to progress from diaspora philanthropy to diaspora investment. The first step to renewing goodwill lies in the establishment of genuine rule of law, overseen by truly independent courts.
With that in mind, the implementation of an e-Residency system on top of the already-(soon-to be) existing digital governance infrastructure could go a long way to reinvigorate diaspora participation in the homeland. Since independence, many entrepreneurs among Armenia’s wealthy diaspora have expressed a desire to invest in the country. Some have tried and failed for a variety of reasons. Others have cited the difficulty of managing a business in a risk-prone environment from abroad.
E-residency could facilitate philanthropic, cultural, diplomatic and educational cooperation as well.
E-residency could potentially solve most of these issues by allowing digital identity card holders to make secure investments in Armenia, open bank accounts, launch and operate businesses and much more. Diaspora industrialists could answer Mr. Pashinyan’s call to “enrich [Armenia] while enriching [themselves]” without ever leaving their suburban ranch-style home. Young entrepreneurs or digital nomads could set up their vegan blogging operation in the homeland and benefit from the business-friendly, low flat tax rates while sipping lattés in trendy Saryan Street coffee houses.
Of course, the possibilities are not limited to business ties. E-residency could facilitate philanthropic, cultural, diplomatic and educational cooperation as well. For instance, armed with data collected by a centrally governed distributed integration software, the Armenian e-government could prove an invaluable partner for a diaspora-based organization, like Teach for Armenia, improve the quality of rural education by pinpointing the target schools and cross referencing test scores, attendance records or levels of state subsidies.
In the wake of the 2016 April War, the Armenian authorities were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of individual donations coming in from the Diaspora. The lack of coordination between the Ministry of Defense and the many foundations which popped up around that time increased the likelihood for the misuse or diversion of funds destined for the military. E-gov could help avoid such a scenario in the future. An integrated database of all ongoing diaspora charities in Armenia could allow the Armenian State to better orient its own government expenditures toward critical areas.
The Armenian people have been following the ‘blockchain’ approach to nation-building for a long time now. Students at Armenian schools in Montreal or Buenos Aires take the same Armenian history lessons and graduate speaking the same Armenian without the need for a state school-board to coordinate the curriculum. Armenian sports organizations compete in spontaneously-organized Olympiads all over the world. The Armenian Church simultaneously maintained houses of worship, community centers, retirement homes, charities and so on in several dozen countries while Armenia lingered under foreign occupation. Armenians were a digital nation before that was even a thing; receiving an official Armenian digital ID card is as close as one could get to Armenia without moving here. To unleash the full potential of diaspora-cooperation, the Armenian Government should look no further than an E-residency program for the Diaspora.