GANTA, Liberia — For the first time since a pair of bloody civil wars ended eight years ago, activists in Liberia are taking serious steps in hopes of reactivating the African nation's credit union movement. The country's original credit unions, which all but ceased to exist at the outbreak of the first war in 1989, hope to resuscitate their movement under the leadership of the Liberia Credit Union National Association (LCUNA).
In the seven years that the first civil conflict raged in Liberia, a country colonized by freed American slaves in 1847, more than 200,000 people lost their lives and another 1 million were displaced. After three years of relative peace, a second conflict erupted in 1999. In 2003, the combined actions of United Nations peacekeeping forces and Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a social action group of 3,000 Christian and Muslim women, helped bring the conflict to a close. The women's group's actions also are credited with helping elect President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's and Africa's first democratically elected female president.
Prior to the 1989 civil war, Liberia had 71 credit unions with US$10 million in savings and 20,000 members. Today, the country has just 22 credit unions with US$2.3 million in savings and serves fewer than 10,000 people, according to Dave Grace, World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) senior vice president of association services, who attended a credit union organizational meeting in the rural community of Ganta last month.
"The biggest challenge facing Liberia's credit unions is not their lack of systems or training, but rather the struggle to look to the future and realize that the best days are still ahead for the country and its credit union movement," according to Grace, who attended the two-day workshop at the invitation of the Central Bank of Liberia and the United Nations Capital Development Fund.
In late 2006, WOCCU led a two-day workshop in the capital city of Monrovia to teach Liberia's credit unions about topics ranging from model credit union building and savings mobilization to governance and WOCCU's PEARLS monitoring system. An estimated 40 credit union directors and staff from 18 credit unions, along with officials from LCUNA, the Liberian Cooperative Development Agency and the U.N. Development Program, attended the training. According to reports at the time, many workshop participants received their first-ever training at the workshop.
WOCCU remains optimistic that the resurgence of interest in credit unions, coupled with the stable, democratically elected government in Liberia, will help the country's movement gain the traction it lacked in 2006 to move forward. In addition, Sirleaf's background - she earned an accounting degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an economics degree from the University of Colorado-Boulder, went on to work for Citibank and World Bank in Africa and was part of the Liberia's government before being elected president - creates a climate conducive to the re-emergence of the country's credit unions, according to Pete Crear, WOCCU president and CEO.
"It's long been my dream to see the Liberian credit union movement restarted," said Crear, who will retire from his WOCCU post at the end of July. "It will be a fabulous capstone on my career at WOCCU if this happens."
On a fundraising visit to the United States in 2008, Sirleaf stated that credit unions providing women with small business loans may be part of an initiative to improve the lives of Liberia's women and revitalize its local marketplaces, many of which are home to women-owned stands. She remains optimistic on the future of her country despite its still considerable challenges. It is an attitude that characterizes both the personal and professional viewpoints of the former banker, and one she demonstrated during last week's commencement speech before Harvard University's graduating class of 2011: "If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."
World Council of Credit Unions is the global trade association and development agency for credit unions. World Council promotes the sustainable development of credit unions and other financial cooperatives around the world to empower people through access to high quality and affordable financial services. World Council advocates on behalf of the global credit union system before international organizations and works with national governments to improve legislation and regulation. Its technical assistance programs introduce new tools and technologies to strengthen credit unions' financial performance and increase their outreach.
World Council has implemented more than 290 technical assistance programs in 71 countries. Worldwide, 57,000 credit unions in 105 countries serve 217 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.