Ex-CU CEO Heads To Ethiopia In Bid To Help Co-ops

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In the hours before the New Year rang in, former credit union CEO Dennis Sharpe was headed to Ethiopia, where he will spend five weeks working with government officials to expand their nation's "fragile" cooperative system.

Admittedly more comfortable in countries that had previously been under communist rule, the 61-year-old Sharpe, who has traveled to 30 countries on five continents, said he's going with an open mind and a desire to make a difference.

"All of my previous work has been in the former Soviet Union," Sharpe said. "I feel quite comfortable going to (places like) Serbia. I just have to watch out for landmines there."

Hired by ACDI/VOCA (ACDI /VOCA is an acronym for Agricultural Cooperative Development International/Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance), a private, nonprofit organization that promotes broad-based economic growth and the development of civil society in emerging democracies and developing countries, Sharpe said expected that much of his time would be spent in small communities within the African country.

"The purpose of this assignment is to transfer knowledge to cooperative promoters in order that they will further transfer this knowledge to rural people managing Ethiopian Savings and Credit Cooperatives," he said. "I am working with the Savings and Credit Cooperatives to assist rural Ethiopians in improving their own capacities in effectively managing their economic livelihoods."

He said his 35 years as an educator for cooperatives, his background of "growing up poor" and his passion for credit unions likely got him this assignment.

He formerly served as CEO of EdCo CU in Des Moines, Iowa, and presently serves as a substitute high school teacher in his hometown. Sharpe is also fluent in Russian and served as an interpreter for the Soviet Union's team at the 1990 Odyssey of the Mind World Finals. His long list of achievements includes Upper Iowa University's Educator of the Year Award, CUES Distinguished Fellow Award, and the Dora Maxwell Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Social Responsibility Program.

Sharpe said his own experiences and the dedication of organizations like the United States Agency for International Development, Volunteers for Overseas Cooperative Assistance and the World Council of Credit Unions give him good indication that these people are eager to improve their situations.

"I'm going to try to work with what they have and see what they need," Sharpe said, adding that he is ready for anything. In the months leading up to the trip, Sharpe said he had a series of injections-"The shots alone cost $500"-to protect him from illnesses such as malaria.

'You Can't Swim..."

"When I'm in the Capital of Addis Ababa, I'll be staying in some very luxurious locations," he said. "But out in the bush . . . you can't swim in their lakes, rivers or outdoor pools."

"I feel quite comfortable anywhere," he added. "I am trying to prepare myself to lose 30 to 45 pounds."

Ethiopia is in the lowest 25% of poverty- stricken nations in the world, Sharpe said. Starvation and AIDS are rampant, claiming countless lives every year in the country. Those at poverty level make less than $500 a year. "But, like everybody else in the world, they have children and families with needs."

Ethiopia's organizational leaders said they would like Sharpe to help identify problems and constraints in the development of savings and credit cooperatives and present plans on how best to alleviate them.

"The government believes that one of the best solutions and needed action for the (savings and credit cooperative) development is formation of a union of savings and credit cooperatives," stated Jim Dempsey, ADCI/VOCA representative to Ethiopia, in an e-mail to Sharpe. "The tasks are large. We have achieved much but you will find that the SCC is still in an early stage of development."

Among the challenges Sharpe expects to face include basic accounting procedures, no measures for performance and a lack of annual audits. And, while the Cooperative Promotion Bureau does dictate savings and lending conditions in some cases, the government controls interest rates.

While he said he is not sold on the idea of "adding another layer of bureaucracy" to the system already in place, he wasn't clear yet on other suggestions he might make.

"They do have CARE (International's Village Savings & Loan program) in place and it's really quite great," he said. "It has worked well in many countries."

His task is to help them improve on that, Sharpe said, adding that he will suggest more emphasis on the savings aspects. "One of the problems we have with Africa is sustainability," he said. Rather than giving external loans at the outset, he said, "CARE programs show you have to build savings first."

Sharpe did say that past experience has taught him to relax a bit more. "I know not to come on too strong as a business person," he said. "I need to go a bit slower and try not to have any preconceived notions."

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