Calgary, CANADA—The final day of the 2007 World Credit Union Conference featured in-depth discussions on the relevance of credit union principles in today’s world.
The morning kicked off with a glimpse into the joint World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) and Canadian Co-operative Association program to strengthen the supervisory capacity of the Uganda Cooperative and Savings Credit Union (UCSCU). In the video, low income credit union members in Uganda explained how credit unions had helped them increase their household incomes and send their children to school. UCSCU Chairman Moses Opio Ogal emphasized the importance of international cooperation when he took stage following the video, a message which resonated with the crowd.
Next, two highly accomplished industry leaders from Poland and the United States discussed how their organizations serve poor members. Kathy Bardswick, President and CEO of the Co-operators Group Limited of Canada, facilitated the discussion.
Grzegorz Bierecki, WOCCU director and President of the National Association of Cooperative Savings and Credit Unions (NACSCU) in Poland, explained how a simple letter he received as a public official from a credit union volunteer eventually led to the creation of the country’s largest non-bank financial service network. The letter had outlined the credit union model as an effective vehicle for rebuilding a democratic Poland. Bierecki confirmed that credit unions are indeed key pillars of democratic societies because they provide economic freedom, community bonds and ownership of institutions.
In reference to usurious lenders, a topic both speakers broached in talking about their respective countries, Bierecki commented, “We think usury is the strongest enemy of democracy, because it takes away people’s ownership and freedom. If you don’t take a stand for justice and freedom, cooperativeness will cease to exist.”
Bierecki reminded attendees that although credit unions have made great gains in helping people lift themselves out of poverty, much remains to be done.
“Despite all our work, poor people are still being punished just for being poor,” he remarked.
Martin Eakes founded Self-Help Credit Union, which provides housing finance to minority and low income groups who cannot get loans from other financial institutions, right out of grad school in North Carolina. Having grown up in a poor community, he had witnessed how hard people worked just trying to provide for their families. He also knew that if you gave people living in poverty a chance—by giving them a loan— they would do everything they could to pay it back.
One of Self-Help’s borrowers was a woman who spent the first night in her new home staring at the thermostat in gratitude. In the new home, she would not have to heat the house throughout the night with an open oven, as she had in the low-income housing where she had raised her children. She was at peace knowing her grandchildren would be warm and safe in her new home.
“If you have the vision to see a problem, you have the duty to solve it,” Eakes reminded the credit union leaders.
Bierecki and Eakes both drove home the message that credit union leaders need to go beyond providing retail financial services and advocate for policies on the national level to create environments in which members can grow out of poverty. Bierecki talked about how NACSCU had lobbied for greater consumer protection in Poland, even though the consequences may affect the credit unions’ bottom line. And Eakes shared his experience advocating for stricter regulation of usurious finance companies in North Carolina that had been misleading consumers obtaining home loans.
In the afternoon, conference co-host Credit Union Central of Canada presented an interactive members’ forum in which participants shared their experiences and strategies on environmental stewardship in credit unions.
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 103 countries serve 208 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.