Early Impressions Of, & A Tough Question For WOCCU

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Thirty-six days is a mighty short time to assess an organization that literally spans the globe, but I asked Pete Crear to do it anyway.

Perhaps it was fitting since all roads are supposed to lead to Rome (where they merge into a spaghetti bowl of vehicular anarchy) that Crear, the long-time league and CUNA executive who has been tapped to head up the World Council of Credit Unions, had his first opportunity to meet the far-flung troops when the association hosted its World Credit Union Conference in the Italian capital in late July.

"What surprised me most is the scope of the organization," said Crear, who had previously worked with WOCCU as CUNA's liaison to the group. "We get to see the World Council from a narrow perspective in the U.S. But now I'm getting to peek behind the curtain and I can see that the World Council means so much more to so many people."

Crear, who in his introductory remarks asked the more than 1,000 people on hand to make sure they approached him about anything, said that in his first month on the job very few people had indicated that there was something specific that they wanted from WOCCU. "Nobody has said 'I think you ought to do this.' But that's what I'd like to get to."

The World Council CEO job comes with a global mobile phone, a suitcase and first-name relationships with bellmen and taxi drivers. But although he was in Rome, Crear said the one thing he hasn't had to do much of in his first month has been travel. Crear, who had retired from CUNA, got the WOCCU post following the resignation of Arthur Arnold-who had tired of life on the road. Arnold was a European who brought a different perspective to what is supposed to be an international organization but which is perceived by many as being dominated by the Yanks. Crear, who was criticized by some uninformed folks as not fit for the job because he doesn't speak a foreign launguage, but who speaks French, said he had always heard second-hand about concerns over American influence over WOCCU (most of the funds come from the U.S).

"You hear from people who say they heard from other people about the U.S. exercising undue influence, but in practice you just can't document that," Crear said. "The directors are certainly not ugly Americans. But I also think it does require continuous work to get resources to the third world. We did a study of the past 30 years and where funds come from and go, and they do primarily go to Latin America and Africa. But that doesn't tell the whole story. We've got to tell our story better."

Is a factor that contributed mightily to the Enron scandal also on display within credit unions? I noted in this space last week that in her remarks before WOCCU's meeting, former Enron executive Sherron Watkins said the real failure at Enron was the reluctance by so many people to "ask the uncomfortable question" of senior management. So I'll pose one here for credit unions and the World Council: How can an organization organized to champion international credit union development- specifically in third world countries-host a conference at a hotel and in a city so outrageously expensive that the very folks who could benefit most from being on hand can't afford to do so?

As noted on page 16, Rome's Cavalieri Hilton must have been so named because of its cavalier approach to pricing, and while many were on guard against Rome's notorious and unseen pickpockets, the Hilton was happy to pick your pocket while semi-smiling at you. (It must be noted there were other conference hotel options, as well.)

In opening the conference, outgoing WOCCU Chairman Bobby McVeigh of Canada observed, "For the price of two lattes, we can feed, educate and shelter a child for a week." If that's true, you could almost charter a credit union in some countries for the $32 the Hilton charged for a cheeseburger. McVeigh's comments got to the core of what the World Council was created to be; the hands in its logo are supposed to be helping hands, not a symbol for tipping the bellman.

To be sure, I want to emphasize there are three pragmatic realities to WOCCU's work and the nature of people that must be acknowledged: 1) Much of WOCCU's work, especially in Central America, the former Soviet states, and Africa, is done well out of the limelight; 2) All conferences are driven by location-including those hosted by The Credit Union Journal. Imagine trying to coax Americans to a meeting in Rome (Georgia)! And 3), conferences are big income-generators for squeezed associations. WOCCU might well argue it must offer the glitzy location-carrot to CUs in first-world economies in order to underwrite its work in far-from-glitzy corners of the globe.

I'd suggest there's a compromise to be had. This new World CU Conference is to be an annual event. It attracts hundreds of volunteers from CUs in the developed world who are walking Googles of information and experience (both within CUs and their own professional lives) that could be shared with others hungry for such knowledge. And this is hardly a one-way street. While some Americans believe there is nothing they might learn from other CUs, many unfortunately missed insights shared by a Brazilians, Poles and others from whom the Americans could have gleaned an idea or two (see related story, page 14).

Why not replace one (or more) of the ultimately forgettable keynote lunch presentations with a Lunch & Learn, teaming up those seeking ideas with those who have them to share? On day one, placards on tables could identify CUs from developed countries and several things they believe they have to share with the smaller CU movements. On day two, the process could be reversed. On both days, breakout sessions could be replaced with time for follow-up discussion.

Credit unions call themselves cooperatives. There's no better forum for exhibiting such cooperation than a World Council event.

Frank J. Diekmann is Editor of The Credit Union Journal.

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