GUANAJUATO, Mexico—In the wake of the withering global economic crisis, Vicente Fox is optimistic, even upbeat. In fact, Mexico's former president and credit union champion believes cooperatives will play a critical role in creating a stronger economic future, a message he will share with attendees at this year's World Council of Credit Unions' (WOCCU) World Credit Union Conference. The "early bird" deadline for the annual event, which convenes July 26-29 in Barcelona, Spain, has been extended through June 2.
"It's time to recompose, re-energize and reshape the global financial system to take on its proper role in serving people," said Fox, currently co-president of Centrist Democrat International, a global coalition of more than 100 Christian Democrat parties. "We came into the current economic situation after experiencing our best decade in terms of reducing global poverty. Like surgery, we have to become very focused on solving the right problems as we emerge from the crisis."
Fox's optimism is tempered by the realization that large commercial banks had failed to reach marginalized populations even prior to the economic crisis to which many of them contributed. Financial cooperatives, including credit unions, provide the necessary complement in serving millions of people, especially the rural poor, and will be critical in expanding those services, he said.
"Cooperatives do their best work in helping stabilize communities and creating peaceful environments," Fox said. "We all have to keep reaching for the best system possible to make sure that every citizen in the world has access to financial services."
Mexico's former president knows firsthand the challenge such a charge imposes. When he became the country's top elected official in 2000, Mexico's economic system was "broken," he explained, with financial cooperatives characterized by "corruption and bankruptcy." A meeting in California with Grameen Bank's Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his bank's work serving the poor, set Fox on his current course.
"I was inspired by Grameen Bank and fell in love with the financial cooperative system," Fox said.
Fox helped revitalize Mexico's rapidly growing credit union system with assistance from WOCCU and various U.S. credit union leagues and institutions. (WOCCU, the California Credit Union League and the Texas Credit Union League, in partnership with Caja Popular Mexicana, won the 2005 Herb Wegner Memorial Award for Outstanding Program for their combined efforts.) During the process, Fox learned the importance of proper financial institution oversight, a lack of which he said contributed to the current economic crisis. He also became further convinced of the critical role cooperatives play in serving the poor, and he now lobbies whenever possible in support of cooperatives' roles within the global financial system.
"If I could speak to the [Group of 20] nations, my most passionate recommendation would be that, in order to increase growth and prosperity among the poor, cooperative financial systems must be considered at the same levels as the banking system," Fox said. "But they must be governed with rules and oversight appropriate to their cooperative natures."
Ethical leadership, proper training and a system integrated to serve everyone who wants and needs financial services also will be important to the future of global economic growth, Fox said. But there are other lessons to learn from the economic crisis he believes is waning, not the least of which is the courage to be creative and seek new, untried solutions to reach more people with critically needed financial services.
"Be outrageous, be innovative and take risks," Fox said. "We must never stop creative minds from finding new solutions, because great, bright ideas are often the result."
For more information about the "early bird" deadline for WOCCU's World Credit Union Conference, visit www.woccu.org/Barcelona09.
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.