Small Steps, Global Growth

On ICU Day, let’s celebrate CUs serving as members’ economic lifelines.

October 1, 2010

There’s a proverb that says “Those who want to achieve great goals must first take small steps.” It was only recently that I realized how appropriate that saying is to the work of the global credit union movement.

I was listening to an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio with Jennifer Bernhardt, one of the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) staff members in charge of This WOCCU fund-raising program allows donors to match the savings of poor rural members of Caja Yanga, a credit union in southern Mexico.

By pledging a $50 or $75 savings match online, donors help members save for housing, education, or microenterprise needs, and encourage them to develop the savings habit.

What struck me was the story of one of the program’s savers. With her small savings—matched by a generous U.S. donor—she was able to replace the dirt floor of her home with a concrete slab. What may appear to be a small step to us has led to a major difference in the life of this woman and her family.

I was also struck by the fact that time and again, in country after country in which WOCCU works, similar small steps have led to great achievements on behalf of the global credit union movement. In what are admittedly tough economic times for us all, tiny credit unions in developing countries are still making tremendous differences in their members’ lives.

In Sri Lanka, WOCCU is working with Women’s Development Services Co-operative Society, better known as Women’s Co-op. The goal is to increase access to financial services for female farmers and their families living in rural areas, through agricultural lending and savings programs. All borrowers and savers are female farmers whose efforts not only help their families, but also increase the local food supply.

One of those farmers found herself challenged during the last growing season when she wanted to rent a hand-sprayer and buy pesticide to treat her rice and vegetable crops, of which she farms a half-acre each. The combined cost of the sprayer rental and the pesticide was 9,110 Sri Lankan rupees—about $90. If she had not been able to borrow the money from Women’s Co-op, her crops might have failed, causing her to lose what little income she had.

Perhaps the greatest challenges are faced by Haiti’s credit unions in the wake of the January earthquake. Credit union buildings crumbled during the quake. Their balance sheets also collapsed in the aftermath, as members who lost everything were unable to pay back their loans.

Without liquidity, Haiti’s credit unions are unable to do what they do best—help members in need.

Some Haitian credit unions slowly are stabilizing, often with the help of small deposits from members who still can afford to make them. Those deposits are then turned into small loans for other members in desperate need.

As we approach International Credit Union (ICU) Day on Oct. 21, please keep in mind that even the toughest times we’ve faced recently are nothing compared to those faced by many credit unions that WOCCU works with daily.

Realize that the small steps made by these credit unions—in some cases the largest steps those credit unions can afford to take—often become economic lifelines for their members.

And remember that no step is too small to take when it helps a member in need.

Pete Crear is president and CEO of World Council of Credit Unions.