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SKAPJE, Macedonia – Most American credit union managers’ jobs do not involve being evacuated during a civil war. Martha Ninichuk’s did as part of her role as Project Director of a combined USAID and World Council of Credit Union (WOCCU) project that began in Macedonia in 1995. It was only one in a series of events that turned her from a go-by-the rule book manager into one that could handle almost anything. Her goal, set by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was to mobilize rural savings and to create US$860,000 in savings, $620,000 in loans and to open 4400 memberships. Ninichuk, who grew up in a very sheltered, tightly-knit Michigan family in a farming community, had spent seven years as a manager of a small credit union. She was a second-generation credit union manager following in her father’s footsteps. However, she had always hankered for international development work, a desire that was boosted when another credit union CEO, back from overseeing an African project, talked about what he had done. Ninichuk “hounded” WOCCU to give her a chance. They sent her first on an African project then two more in Macedonia. When USAID funding came through for a long-term Macedonian project, she was told she could head it. Ninichuk arrived in Macedonia thinking she was more prepared than she was. Although she studied Russian at university where she majored in history and knew the Cyrillic alphabet, reading street signs in a language she could not speak or even finding a grocery store became major challenges. Although living conditions are modern and comfortable, she often felt isolated in a family-oriented culture. Ninichuk was quick to add though, that “the people were extremely friendly” and welcoming, and that helped get her through the beginning weeks. Ninichuk said she’d been told that there would be credit union legislation in place. There was none and there would be none. She describes her co-workers as “wonderful”. They include one Australian and a Canadian both who have Macedonia parents and are fluent in the language. Two native Macedonians complete her staff. Ninichuk’s first hurdle was to find a way to set up something resembling a credit union. There was another structure in place that allowed the project to go ahead. It was called a savings house. In principle the house is owned by one person who loans his or her private capital as a personal investment. In this case, rather than have a person, the project found a non-governmental organization called Association of Citizens for the People of Macedonia (ACFULM) to be the owner. They could then operate legally. Ninichuk said there was another major difference. Being a credit union manager in Michigan was a positive environment. People knew and respected credit unions. In Macedonia many people, including the banks, did not want credit unions to even exist. Even from potential members there was a large amount of distrust of financial institutions, much justified. When Macedonia became independent from Yugoslavia people in 1991 people were not allowed to move their money to their new nation. Many Macedonians lost everything. Establishing trust became a major priority. Banks are not for the local rural poor. Even to open an account, people need a large initial deposit that would exceed what farmers and villagers could scrape out on monthly incomes as meager as US$150 a month. As for the loans, banks would not consider loans for seeds or plastic covering for crops worth the effort. Farmers needed precisely that type of loan and the new savings house provided it. However 1,000 people in five areas considered they would risk joining. Each area had its own board of directors, and they were linked by computers. The offices followed the strict accounting guidelines of WOCCU’s PEARLS System (Protection, Effective Financial Structure, Asset Quality, Rates of Return and Costs, Liquidity and Standards of Excellence). Monthly audits of branches by the central location help adherence to good accounting standards and prevent nasty surprises. Ninichuk said they had to teach basic computer skills to all staff. Microsoft Office had to be translated into Macedonian. Now, Ninichuck reports, the staff in all five branches are computer literate and are even sending emails back and forth. As Ninichuk was experimenting and adapting to the project’s needs, she noticed an increased military presence around the city. One day, while talking to her parents, outside her apartment window a helicopter hovered so close that she felt the vibrations. She checked maps in case she need to drive to Greece. She called Vice President Lucy Ito at WOCCU about what to do if war broke out. USAID began calling her repeatedly to say she had to be ready to move at a given phone call. Ninichuk joked with her staff that if her portable phone rang it meant she had to go. On June 26, 2001 the staff was at a dinner meeting prior to doing a major presentation at one of the Savings House’s branches. Her phone went off. “They thought civil war was coming and that the U.S. knew something they didn’t.” She said she “felt awful leaving the staff and that I was a safe pampered American.” Ninichuk spent the next five months trying to co-ordinate Macedonia’s project from WOCCU’s Bulgarian office before it was deemed safe for her to return. (In the first elections held in September since Macedonia was pushed to the brink of civil war last year, opposition parties claimed victory, according to USA Today. Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski confirmed that his ruling VMRO party had been ousted by the oppostion Together for Macedonia coalition, headed by former communists.)The project will end in December. Ninichuk feels sad about leaving, not just because she doesn’t know what to do next. She is beginning to look for her next job, but she confesses she would like to do more development work. What concerns her most is what will happen next to her savings house. Between civil war and lack of legislation, the project did not make their USAID goals of savings and number of members, but they did meet the loan goals. The five branches that they did open are running safely. Plans have been made for a group of Michigan credit union leaders to visit to help with the next step of development. Ninichuk will also miss her staff. When she first arrived, she found that the more exuberant style of the Macedonians yelling at each other disturbed her. Now she knows when it is quiet something is wrong. Once when she found it hard to do things without a firm structure, she now wonders if she will be able to go back to a strong regiment. Her biggest lesson learned is that if something isn’t working change it. -

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