CUs are transforming lives in countries like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Kenya.
Imagine for a moment a world without credit unions. What might have happened if Friedrich Raiffeisen and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch had not considered financial cooperatives as a way to help Germany’s poor farmers?
What would conditions be like today if Edward A. Filene had never traveled, never witnessed women’s financial cooperatives at work in India, and simply stuck to his retailing?
Chances are, there would be greater social and economic stratification, more poor and disadvantaged families struggling to get by, thriving usury among money lenders, and less economic self-determination for us all. Cooperatives of all kinds—especially financial cooperatives—empower people and give them control over their own destinies. A world without credit unions would be noticeably different than the one we occupy today. It would be a world in which far fewer people benefit from the advantages we all share.
World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU), Madison, Wis., experiences such moments often in its global development efforts, and it understands the positive impact credit unions can have in helping people thrive. We see credit unions serving members—and even saving lives—through their efforts in countries like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Kenya .
When we celebrate International Credit Union (ICU) Day® on October 15, along with 186 million credit union members in 97 countries worldwide, we do so not only to recognize what credit unions have accomplished, but also to acknowledge the work that remains. And we celebrate for the sake of members we will someday serve.
This year’s ICU Day theme—“Your Money. Your Choice. Your Credit Union.”—reminds us of the intrinsic difference our institutions bring to the marketplace. Stan Cowan, of A+ Federal Credit Union, Austin, Texas, who coined this year’s theme, captured in a phrase the essence of our philosophy. It’s important for us to remember why credit unions exist and how they differ from our for-profit competi¬tors. Among populations WOCCU serves, the fine distinction can mean a marked difference in member service, and sometimes survival.
I recently visited one of our projects in Kenya and saw what I consider a credit union miracle. WOCCU had helped establish a remote branch on a mountain top, where the population had no access to financial services. In a brief 18 months of existence, the credit union member population grew from around 1,500 to more than 10,000. New members emerged from the bush clutching dirt-covered jars full of money—life savings they had buried in the ground years earlier because they had nowhere else to put it. Their plan was to deposit those savings in their new credit union.
That same story has been repeated time and again and in multiple variations among the countries in which WOCCU is at work developing credit unions.
In Afghanistan, women members have come forward, many with their burkas still shrouding their faces, to make their first credit union deposits and withdraw small loans to help them support their families. In Colombia, a growing number of rural poor, displaced by political violence, have fled to the cities and sought credit union assistance as they attempt to start new lives. The list of examples goes on.
In the years I’ve worked with and for WOCCU, I’ve seen many examples of credit unions digging deep to do whatever they can to help members. And I’ve been impressed by the ways in which these credit unions let necessity define member service.
As one who has dedicated his life to credit unions, I found the recent experience in Kenya thrilling. It also reaffirmed for me what ICU Day celebrates each year. Credit unions exist for the sake of their members, and on ICU Day this year an additional 10,000 Kenyans will join the celebration. I hope you will, too.
PETE CREAR is president/CEO of World Council of Credit Unions.