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KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan will be the site for an 18-month project to develop credit unions if the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) is awarded a grant from the World Bank. If approved, the project would also seek additional funds from other international development agencies. U.S. credit unions’ help would also be welcomed. WOCCU’s newly named chief operating officer Brian Branch and Lois Kitsch have been on two missions to this war-torn country to determine the feasibility of such a project. The need is definitely there. Kitsch said, “99% of the population do not have access to any type of savings or lending services. If they do borrow, it is from family or the local grocer. People here are very poor. Almost all government workers supplement their monthly income (around $40) with small micro enterprises.” In talking to people Kitsch said she and Branch found no one who said they would not benefit from credit union services. They discussed the project with hotel workers, airlines workers, government workers, teachers and vendors. Kitsch is convinced that with proper management and cross cultural understanding credit unions would work. Kitsch found the experience of being in Kabul unique. She described flying in over the desert surrounded by mountains and rolling hills, but the scenery was dotted with skeletons of old planes. She admitted she had a few worried moments of her own over whether or not her own run-down, ancient airplane would become one of those skeletons. Kitsch visited Kabul, which is a city located in a valley and witnessed perspectives not available on the television war coverage. She described it as being, “crowded with people. The public markets are full of both men and women. You will see women who still wear the burkas, but I would say more do not than do. The vegetables are displayed along with several kinds of fruits on small carts that merchants will push through the streets. There is also an abundance of fresh fruit here.apples, peaches, plums, oranges and other more exotic fruits. Much of the groceries come from nearby Dubai.” Kitsch did not wear a burka during her stay, but she did wear a headscarf and found putting it on properly a challenge. Kabul was the hottest place she has ever been, she said, and having to have her arms and legs covered did not help against the heat. When credit union people travel on business they have a certain level of comfort, but none of that was available for Kitsch. The Intercontinental Hotel, which is not part of the hotel’s chain, was booked months in advance. On her second trip to Kabul in November she was lucky enough to find a place in a small guesthouse. The weather had changed from being the hottest place she had experienced to being the coldest. This is a dramatic statement from anyone used to Wisconsin winters. She described the accommodations as “definitely not four-star.” “The bathroom was down the hall and basically they gave me a bucket of cold water to wash with. After about 10 days, another guest left and I was able to snag his bathroom, complete with hot water and a real shower,” she recalled. But Kitsch admittedly was not there to be comfortable. She was there to get a job done. One of the first goals was to find a reliable translator for the local language of Farsi. She made a good connection with a local consulting firm called Sherdil Qader. She also had an English-speaking driver, however, his English was very limited. “A good translator will be very important to a successful project,” she said. Kitsch believes that credit unions can accommodate Islamic Banking Practices. “They would likely pay a loan fee or profit sharing rather than interest.” Asked about staffing requirements she thinks, “it will have the expert project director and a couple of local monitoring staff. The credit unions would each have five or six employees so I anticipate we would be managing around 20 people.” The location of the credit unions most likely would be the northern city of Mazar-I-Shariff. Kitsch anticipates the credit unions would be all in the north. “These cities would be well-suited for credit unions, have thriving economies and have support from local government officials and local businessmen.” Kitsch sees that “Afghanistan can be a big part of the re-building of the countries and of local families’ lives. The U.S. credit union movement has a real opportunity to help this monumental activity happen. The project will need to have resources such as funds for equipment, training materials, possibly hosting of visitors and other activities. The movement could really come together as one strong force to make this new movement happen.” -

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