By Abhishek Banerjee, KF13, Armenia
As my fellowship at SEF International comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on my experience. I compare it to the expectations I had before arriving in Yerevan and to the experiences the other fellows have had in their respective countries.
My flight landed in Yerevan at 4 am on a cool fall morning in October. Driving through the dark streets, I saw Russian and Armenian billboards on both sides of the street and wondered how I would fit in with only three months in front of me. Fortunately, the staff at SEF was an excellent host and I quickly made friends around the city. I had heard about Armenian hospitality and was even more impressed seeing it in action. Almost everyone wanted to know what I was doing in Armenia for three months in the dead of winter! I was also excited to see if Armenia and the region would live up to all the reading and stories I had heard before coming over.
Yerevan is not Armenia
Click to view slideshow.Walking past the Canali, Ermenegildo Zegna and Burberry showrooms on the streets of Yerevan, I couldn’t understand why Kiva was operating here. From my balcony in the center of the city, almost half the cars I saw were German-made and less than five years old. Given all of this, it is sometimes hard to believe that the country has a per-capita GDP of only ~$6,500. However, as a couple of foreigners told me during my first two weeks in the country – Yerevan is not Armenia.
The first trip I made outside of Yerevan was to complete borrower verifications in Sisian and Goris (Southern Armenia). These towns were less than twenty minutes outside of Yerevan, yet the differences slowly became clearer. The artificial city-center gets much of the foreign investment and has been significantly rebuilt in the past decade. As one drives away from the center, the buildings become progressively shabbier until the city is left behind and tiny villages with mud homes come to the forefront. This is where Kiva and its partners make a difference. This is where many Armenians live. And this brings me to my next observation.
Distribution of wealth
Whether justified or not, there is a general state of distrust in the political and economic elite. Many of those I have met in the country make claims of corrupt politicians, shabby election procedures and oligarchs who control most of the major industries. As such, the confidence in the future is quite low – a frightening proposition for any nation. Most of the educated young people I had met work either work menial jobs or remain unemployed. While the official unemployment rate hovers around 10%, many argue that the real rate is closer to 40%.
A significant proportion of the youth talk about going to Europe or the U.S. for further education. Many of them say that they will return afterward to contribute to the local economy; however I am not entirely convinced that is how they truly feel.
Awareness of Microfinance
Part of me expected microfinance to be a buzzword on the streets of Yerevan. Given the media attention and Armenia’s status as one of the beneficiaries, I expected the general population to understand the idea. Therefore, I was surprised when I had to explain what it was to almost everyone I met. Most locals think of development assistance in terms of financial aid and remittances from the large global diaspora. The idea of business loans meant to help entrepreneurs as a sort of development tool is a concept most never thought of.
Given the lack of major industries and employment opportunities in Armenia, these small mom-and-pop shops need all the support and awareness they can get to remain in business. While they cannot offer the selection or convenience of a supermarket, they are a significant source of income for many in urbanized locations.
My initial fears about being an outsider for three months were quickly put at rest. The history, culture, food and warmth of the people have made time fly by. This experience has served as a great reminder of why staying in a place for a few months is a very different experience than a quick vacation. I hope that the development in central Yerevan continues to expand and more Armenians get to reap the economic benefits of the country. I hope the government offers a bit more transparency and the average Armenian on the street has more faith in the country’s direction. Finally, I’d like to see microfinance continue to scale and reach some of the more distant, rural regions of Armenia.
Some day in the future, I look forward to making another trip to the Caucasus and see what this path of sporadic development eventually achieves. Most of all, I hope it does not change the people.
Abhishek Banerjee is a Kiva Fellow (KF13) currently based in Yerevan, Armenia. Want to volunteer with the Kiva Fellows Program? Learn more here and apply to be a Fellow!
Click here to join the Armenia lending group on Kiva!