With credit unions in Paraguay playing an increasingly greater role in their members' lives, government regulations and oversight that foster rather than inhibit credit unions' ability to serve members are critical to the growth of the country's credit union movement. That message was delivered by a delegation of representatives from World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) and the Minnesota Credit Union Network (MnCUN), which recently visited Paraguay's lawmakers at the invitation of Central de Cooperativas del Area Nacional (CENCOPAN), WOCCU's member organization in the South American country.
The visit was part of the knowledge exchange that has existed between MnCUN and CENCOPAN since the two associations first came together through WOCCU's International Partnerships Program in 2004. The invitation to speak with lawmakers coincided with CENCOPAN's 15th anniversary and its seventh international seminar
CENCOPAN raised the need for outside advocacy efforts after a 2008 shift in the Paraguayan government brought an end to the former political party's 61-year administration. Alianza Patriótica por el Cambio (Patriotic Alliance for Change) is comprised of eight political parties that CENCOPAN officials felt needed to better understand the role that Paraguayan credit unions play in their members' lives, according to Modesto Segovia, CENCOPAN board chair.
"The mission of these visits was to provide government officials with a proper perception of the industry and educate them about the work credit unions do for their members," Segovia said. "The presence of the U.S. delegates also demonstrated that CENCOPAN maintains international ties with similar organizations worldwide."
As of December 2007, Paraguay was home to 224 credit unions that served 789,000 members, a market penetration rate of close to 20%. In addition to offering financial services at highly competitive rates, many of the country's credit unions host on-site healthcare facilities, including pharmacies and emergency medical units. They also emphasize financial literacy courses for both individuals and micro-entrepreneurs who are members.
The delegation visited Paraguayan government officials and met with Liliana Ayalde, U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay, to highlight ties between WOCCU, MnCUN and the Paraguayan credit union movement and to discuss the growing importance credit unions have played in serving low-income members throughout the country. The official meetings were followed by CENCOPAN's international seminar, which attracted more than 300 attendees from across the country. Delegation member Jeff Schwalen, MnCUN board member and president of Hiway Federal Credit Union, St. Paul, Minn., spoke to attendees about current challenges facing U.S. credit unions during the country's turbulent economic climate.
Joining Schwalen on the trip were fellow delegates and MnCUN board member Dick Nesvold, CEO of SouthPoint Federal Credit Union, Sleepy Eye, Minn., and Victor Miguel Corro, WOCCU senior manager of the International Partnerships Program.
"This is my third trip to Paraguay and I have seen a lot of progress in that time," Nesvold said. "Being here to witness the enthusiasm and pride the Paraguayans take in this movement has been contagious."
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