At a break out session at the World Council of Credit Unions (Woccu) annual conference in Belfast, delegates explored the principle of ‘co-operation between co-operatives’.
An expert panel of Pawel Grzesik (head of the Warsaw office of Nascu, the National Association of Cooperative Savings and Credit Unions); Alan Moore (CEO of the Irish League of Credit Unions Foundation); Calyn Ostrowski (executive director of the Woccu Foundation); and Peter Mason (CEO of CUFA) looked at international development through credit unions.
The session began with each panellist explaining the approach to development within their organisation. Mr Grzesik spoke of the work done by the Polish credit union movement – where over 1,300 credit unions serve two million members.
Just as Poland’s economy has grown, so too have credit unions, moving from being the recipient of foreign assistance to donors in their own right. This was evidence, said Mr Grzesik, that the movement had “matured”.
Nascu in Poland has started partnerships with other credit unions to help develop the sector in central Europe and in the CIS. Twinning programmes, such as a 20 year relationship with Georgia, had been “extremely successful” and are now being replicated in eastern European countries.
Poland’s relatively late entry into credit unions was also proving advantageous. “We started late compared with Ireland, Britain, America, Canada,” Mr Grzesik said. “We can capitalise on the good and bad aspects from those countries.”
Peter Mason from CUFA spoke of the work done by the organisation across the Asia Pacific region in improving the economies of underserved and disadvantaged communities. CUFA supports local communities, federations, leagues and governments, as well as offering technical assistance to financial co-operatives.
CUFA supports micro-enterprises, education and labour market access initiatives in order to promote inclusive credit unions. This support ranges from grant programmes to help people without land or assets develop their own small business, to working with national credit union bodies and the credit unions themselves. Outside of credit unions, CUFA also aims to increase access to medical care.
We know that when we leave and our project is complete, we want them to be sustainable
Calyn Ostrowski’s message was one of “financial inclusion” with the Woccu Foundation and Global Women’s Leadership Network working on a diverse range of projects, from disaster relief to education.
A recent project had provided 250 credit unions in Nepal with new equipment and training for members in how to develop the enterprise. That training is particularly crucial, said Ms Ostrowski, as “we want to know that when we leave and our project is complete, it will continue to be sustainable”.
The Global Women’s Leadership Network aims to rectify the imbalance that sees women 20% less likely than men to have a formal bank account. Since 2014 it has offered scholarship programmes and an empowerment grant, as well as training programmes building up the skills necessary for women in credit unions to advance their careers. Since the network began in 2009, 1,000 women have gone through the network, from 60 countries.
Alan Moore, from the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) Foundation, said: “Everything we do is based around co-operation”. Supported by credit unions, the Foundation acts as the vehicle for ILCU to co-operate with credit unions in the developing world. As well as the benefits of supporting financial empowerment in the developing world, Mr Moore said the work helped build pride among members for their local credit union and the work they do outside of their own community and country.
The panel’s advice to help support credit unions was to make the country’s representative body the first port of call. If you are in Ireland, speak to the ILCU; in America speak to Woccu. They encouraged credit unions to send delegations to these representative bodies, or host visits themselves.
Each of the speakers agreed that building partnerships across the globe is crucial. By sharing expertise, the message and ethos of credit unions can be more widely understood and the long-term, sustainable growth of credit unions can be achieved.