Madison, WI—On behalf of World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU), Juri Valdov, CEO of Northwest Federal Credit Union and immediate past Chairman of Credit Union National Association (CUNA), traveled to Tallinn, Estonia, August 23–25, 2007, to assess credit union development there. As a movement still working to reestablish itself after the collapse of Soviet rule, Valdov found in it a true “David and Goliath” story.
Valdov speaks Estonian and commented on how “they treated me like one of their own,” as he was warmly embraced by the credit union officials in Estonia, who guided him through visits to credit unions throughout the country.
Estonia had a thriving credit cooperative system between the two World Wars, but today the oldest “modern day” credit union dates back to just 1991, when the country regained its independence from the former Soviet Union.
Estonia’s 11 credit unions are small, mostly rural community-based institutions. They account for less than 1% of the financial market and serve approximately 2,700 members in total. They range in size from a 52-member financial institution to one with 569 members.
When Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, its first endeavor to provide renewed access to financial services in-country stimulated the start-up of 50 commercial banks. Forty-eight of the banks failed, losing the savings of those who had entrusted their hard- earned money in the banks. Although many large depositors were able to recover part of their savings, those with smaller accounts lost everything.
Today, there is no national bank—based on national capital—in Estonia. Andrus Ristkok, Executive Director of the Estonian Union of Credit Cooperatives, reported that two large Scandinavian banks currently hold more than 90% of their savings in the Estonian banking sector. The banks pay a return on savings that is less than the rate of inflation, yet the bank divisions in Estonia are twice as profitable as their European counterparts. Ristkok heads the Estonian Union of Credit Cooperatives, established in 1999, on a part-time basis and with no pay.
The banks and government officials in Estonia portray credit unions as relics of the past with no place in today’s modern world. Yet, “Estonia is a ‘wired’ country where everyone has a cell phone and access to the Internet,” Valdov reported. Valdov counseled Estonian credit union staff on the opportunities the hi-tech environment afforded them in determining the best mix of products and services for members so they can better compete in the changing environment.
“This is about consumer choice,” WOCCU Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Brian Branch, explained, “The lack of competition in Estonia means that consumers lose the real value of their savings, receive weak service and pay a high cost for loans. The credit unions are providing people with alternatives.”
Today’s technology and mobile society offer small credit unions, the “Davids” of Estonia, an opportunity to compete with the multinational “Goliaths” through smart and creative use of technology. “The next step is up to the credit unions in Estonia. They are at a critical stage in their development and need outside help as they begin their journey toward future success,” Valdov stated.
El Consejo Mundial de Cooperativas de Ahorro y Crédito es la asociación gremial y agencia de desarrollo para el sistema internacional de cooperativas de ahorro y crédito. El Consejo Mundial promueve el crecimiento sustentable de las cooperativas de ahorro y crédito y otras cooperativas financieras en todo el mundo a fin de facultar a las personas para que mejoren su calidad de vida a través del acceso a servicios financieros asequibles y de alta calidad. El Consejo Mundial realiza esfuerzos de defensa activa en representación del sistema global de las cooperativas de ahorro y crédito ante organizaciones internacionales y trabaja con gobiernos nacionales para mejorar la legislación y la regulación. Sus programas de asistencia técnica introducen nuevas herramientas y tecnologías para fortalecer el desempeño financiero de las cooperativas de ahorro y crédito y profundizar su alcance comunitario.
El Consejo Mundial ha implementado 290 programas de asistencia técnica en 71 países. A nivel mundial, 57,000 cooperativas de ahorro y crédito en 103 países atienden a 208 millones de personas. Obtenga más información sobre el impacto global del Consejo Mundial en www.woccu.org.