More Than 2,000 People From Nearly 60 Nations Set For Vegas Event

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MADISON, Wis.-For many U.S. credit unions, this week will offer a prime opportunity to learn what is going on with CUs in other parts of the world.

CUNA and the World Council of Credit Unions will jointly host the '1 Credit Union Conference' in Las Vegas. The meeting represents a combination of CUNA's annual meeting and the World Council's World Credit Union Conference.More than 2,000 people representing nearly 60 countries are expected at the event at the MGM Grand Hotel.

Pete Crear, president and CEO of the World Council, said that in spite of the jointly-hosted nature of the meeting, WOCCU's meeting planners have developed a program that is consistent with what it has done in the past.

When America's CUs confront their counterparts from CU movements from around the globe they will find mostly healthy CU communities that have done "pretty well despite the lousy year in 2009," said Crear. In some cases, U.S. CUs may even find themselves a bit envious. In Poland, for instance, credit unions have re-emerged in record time from being suppressed under the former Communist rulers to being mature, sophisticated providers of financial. Indeed, during 2009 Crear noted Poland's credit unions grew nearly every metric by double-digits.

In some emerging economies credit unions have pioneered remote delivery of services. "There's been a great leap ahead in Kenya," said Crear. "We tend to think of these countries as underdeveloped, but they have skipped all the in-between steps (to development), such as brick and mortar, and put together electronic delivery in a very efficient manner. In Ecuador a guy on a motorcycle travels to remote villages and by using a PDA he is able to conduct transactions and even print a receipt. It's been a pretty big leap in technology."

Crear said the World Council has been contacted by U.S.-based credit unions seeking to learn more about how some of those countries are deploying technology.

Rethinking Collaboration
The collaborative efforts underway among credit unions in countries outside the U.S. have also gained notice as a model for American credit unions, but Crear said that while commendable, criticisms that U.S. credit unions don't collaborate are incorrect.

"Operating together-this cooperative stuff we talk about-is tough for us to do, because there is so much here that is distracting," said Crear. "There are more pronounced benefits in other countries from collaboration. The European credit unions, for instance, recognized they needed a presence in Brussels (capital of the European Union) and have crafted a network. We often say we don't cooperate in the U.S., but the truth is we really do; we just have to work a little harder at it. When you say you want to do something, usually 99% of the credit unions are on board, but that 1% that does not want to be can be pretty loud."

Crear expects the world's CUs will be primary collaborators with the International Cooperative Association in formulating activities related to the United Nations' Year of the Cooperative in 2012.

As for the World Council itself, Crear said the organization is coming off "our best year ever" in terms of membership. Credit unions operate in approximately 97 countries, and 43 of those are now represented in the World Council. Crear noted that when he took over the organization in 2005, approximately 27 countries made of the membership of WOCCU. "We had five new members last year, which is unheard of," he said.

Crear said he is particularly proud of the development of two other initiatives: the Global Women's Leadership Network, which "has really taken off and shows there was a pretty big need for that," and the growth of its Project Developments around the world. Many of those projects are underwritten with grants from US AID and the Gates Foundation.

Surge In Projects
In most years World Council had approximately $10 million in underwritten projects underway, said Crear, In 2009, that number surged to $97 million. That includes a five-year development project underway in Afghanistan, where World Council has eight people working in conjunction with the country's 18 fledgling credit unions.

"We will think there are places we can go and make a real difference," said Crear.

Among those places is Liberia, the African country that is now emerging from the harsh dictatorship of Charles Taylor. "They have asked for our help in resurrecting credit unions," said Crear, who points to Rwanda, which went through similar horrors but which has now stabilized. Just two years after genocide was taking place in Rwanda, some 47 credit unions are up and running.

As for China, Crear said, "China is still on our map, but it is a very, very slow and difficult environment. We got off to a fast start, and now we are in the Chinese bureaucracy. We still hold out great hope...we will be able to connect with the rural credit cooperatives in China." If that happens, noted Crear, the number of members and CUs worldwide will be "off the charts."

Crear said World Council has found strong partners in both US Aid and the Gates Foundation, saying of the latter that its philosophy is very much in sync with that of WOCCU. "We are working with people who generally care about helping poor populations do better."

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