Parv Aggarwal Reflects on His Internship at the Headquarters of the Central Bank of Armenia

By Parv Aggarwal, MIB 2020 Candidate, The Fletcher School

This summer, I, along with two other Fletcher MIB students Terry Cronin and Teja Vermuri, undertook a research internship at the Central Bank of Armenia. The first part of my internship was at CBA headquarters in Yerevan, and the second part at CBA’s Research and Training Center, located in the mountainous resort of Dilijan.

My research focused on a risk analysis of Armenian-Russian trade finance de-dollarization from the Armenianperspective, including costs of ruble and dollar dependence for Armenian traders, currency rate volatility risk andcost of carry, reserve value andtranslation risk, commodity benchmark implications, real sector loan de­-dollarization barriers, barriers to a currency swap agreement with Russia, and political andlegal barriers to Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union wide de-dollarization efforts as a response to sanctions risk. In tandem, I also did a policy study of the feasibility of expanding Blockchain DLT and FinTech for distributed banking and financial inclusion in Armenia, including cost-benefit analysis of mobile payments, DLT, smart contracts, CBDC including regulatory gaps, bandwidth limits, IT infrastructure analysis and security concerns based on inputs from startups andstakeholders.

Before I get to CBA though, I have to start with how lucky I feel to be in Armenia this summer. Armenia is by far one of the most unique, authentic, and classy hidden gems in the realm of off-the-beaten-path countries. Armenia is home to the oldest cultural manifestation of Orthodox Christianity in the world, which has survived conquest attempts from many empires in the near-east ranging from the Roman to the OttomanEmpires, as well as the Soviet Union.

Despite all attempts to hegemonize Armenian culture and traditions into those of more “dominant” empires, Armenian culture today remains true to its original forms, and this can be seen not only at monasteries, historic monuments, and meticulously well-maintained cultural archives such as the Matenadaran, but in daily life and interaction with everyday Armenians as well. Interacting with Armenians, one can immediately sense a cultural fabric that is deeply tied to a strong sense of community and belonging.Ina uniquely inclusive Armenian fashion, they want to make visitors feel a part of that sense of community rather than excluded by it.

Armenians, whether your friends, acquaintances, formal colleagues, shopkeepers or random people you just met on the street or on tours, make sure that any issues, whether large or small, you may be experiencing, is “taken care of” on the spot, before proceeding with business as usual. Any Armenian friend, colleague, or acquaintance that I’ve gotten to know not only explained every intricate detail of their culture to me, but took the time out of their day, no matter how busy or packed it was, to make sure that I as a visitor felt unconstrained and “at home” while trying to understand and immersemyselfin the rich and diverse Armenian culture. The Armenian cultural combination of a genuine welcoming and hospitable spirit to make a visitor feel comfortable, with deep pride in historical roots and perfectly maintained traditions, is rarely if ever found in most modern societies in our globe today. I firmly believe that any American who visits Armenia would instantly sense that Armenians make you feel more of a  family than your own family at times. I have not sensed this genuine unconditional hospitality anywhere else I’ve traveled to, including my native India if I’m quite honest. I believe such cultural traits and values, combined with the authenticity the Armenian diaspora carry themselves with throughout the world, are part of the reason Armenians are consistently ranked as some of the friendliest and most trustable people on earth, and this will have positive implications for this unique country, albeit with a small land mass, economy and military, yet endowed with inherent people-powered diplomacy and soft power.

Now on to CBA and my internship. The CBA headquarters building, a staggered roof building located at the government ministry complex near republic square in Yerevan, had two parts, the front part which was a nice modern section with an atrium, visitor center and world-class cafeteria catered by CBA’s in-house “Art Lunch” staff, and an older part at the back with traditional office spaces (and no elevators).

My division, Financial System Stability and Development (FSSD), was housed in the older part, which meant I had to walk up a flight of stairs to the 6thfloor or cut across the new part and backtrack. The actual office was nice and cozy, with each sub-division housed in a separate room of cubicles.

I received my instructions and guidelines for the end result from my supervisor on day 1, and from there onwards it was all independent research. Large discretion was allowed for me to gather relevant data, identify and contact relevant stakeholders, and synthesize the inputs I received as I saw fit.  Despite not having a CBA email, I was allowed to email relevant external parties on behalf of CBA to seek their inputs for my research. Through outreach, I was able to meet with World Bank Armenia’s Digital Development Consultant (via a Fletcher connection), a currency trader at HSBC, ID Bank’s digital strategy chief (Fletcher Tavitian graduate) and the president of the Armenian Blockchain Association.

This is where the unique kind of Armenian interconnectedness combined with the genuine “making sure you’re good” culture was manifested in CBA culture as well, despite the formal setting at one of the most important government institutions ensuring stability in Armenia. Colleagues across different divisions in CBA knew each other very well as friends, and referred to each other (and later myself too) as “jan” which translates to “dear.”

The family vibe at CBA meant that all colleagues serves as collaborative resources to each other for whatever the needs of the day might be (an extended version of the Fletcher Mafia culture we have). Thus, personal connections served as the “fast track” way to get information or access to an otherwise hard to reach person. Anytime I was stuck without data, needed insights into “how things actually worked on the ground” in Armenia, or needed to talk to any subject matter experts or department heads knowledgeable about a particular topic, I would approach my friends and immediate colleagues, including those from Fletcher’s Tavitian Scholars program, who would immediately explore their own contacts and find the most direct link and person to address the specific need at hand. As “official requests” often had a tendency to sit in emails, having connections made all the difference in being able to find the right data (or definitively know if it was simply not collected),andtalk to a practitioner or an expert.

I was genuinely surprised by not only how efficiently the connection system worked and how fast everyone responded, but moreover by how open the connections were to providing information to me as an outsider. The degree of trust that a mutual connection established cannot be understated – the people I was connected to were completely open to all questions, and immediately helped me resolve whatever was still outstanding.

When I mentioned to my friends that I was interning at CBA, the retortedreply I often received was “Why would any Central Bank let foreigners work there?” This is a valid question, and gets at the heart of the unique Armenian openness I experienced and was taken aback by. As I see it, the trust that Armenians put in personal relationships itself begets a sense of responsibility on one’s shoulders to use this unique privilegeawarded to one as only a platform to help this truly one-of-a-kind country and culture find more ways to unlock its potential, whether economically, innovatively, creatively, or on the world stage. I personally felt this unspoken sense of responsibility from my first day in Armenia, and will continue fostering it indefinitely even after my internship ends, for what I’ve experienced in Armenia is a unique gem of a culture which is a role model for a world in extreme turbulent times.

One of my Tavitian Scholar friends and colleagues once joked “it seems there’s no secrets in Armenia” – I would like to qualify this as saying there’s no need for secrets between those who one trusts as family. I am honored to have been a part of the Armenian family during my time here.

CBA HR also took us interns on a memorable excursion to the historical Matenadaran archive of Armenian history and the world-famous Ararat Brandy Factory museum, where we were invited to not only a tour but a dedicated tasting ceremony.


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