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VANCOUVER, British Columbia, and OTTAWA – Canadian credit unions are working to help establish credit unions in Cambodia and Ukraine, both nations that want to build financial cooperatives but need technical assistance. The Cambodian effort involves VanCity Credit Union and the Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada. In Ukraine, the project is spearheaded by the Canadian Co-operative Association, the Ukranian National Association of Savings and Credit Unions and the Council of Ukranian Credit Unions of Canada. In announcing the Cambodia project, sponsors noted “despite years of political instability and the genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodians have created a wide range of community-based financial institutions – or credit unions. However, these fledgling credit unions continue to battle mistrust, and persisting views that the poor cannot save.” John Julian, Co-operative Development Foundation director of international communications and policy, notes a number of cooperatives and credit unions have chosen to support specific international projects instead of contributing to the general fund for international development. Van City has committed $60,000 to assist Cambodia’s emerging credit unions. “More than half our work involves credit unions and financial services development,” Julian says. “The project in Cambodia is a fairly new one, working with one of the federations of savings and credit cooperatives there. “In a new system like this quite often it’s basic capacity that is lacking, such as professional staff and the capacity of board members to govern these fledgling institutions. Actual savings will come over time if you have the right structure in place to ensure those savings are secure, the money is well-used, and loans flow and are collected appropriately.” A series of technical assignments will be carried out over probably the next two or three years by Canadian credit union people to provide the needed training. Anthony Okuchi from the VanCity CU Strategic Planning Department spent two weeks in Cambodia earlier this year. “My role was to act a product development officer,” Okuchi explains. “I went there to help them basically learn how to develop products, price them and bring them to market. “Right now there are very few financial services in Cambodia. I conducted a workshop on financial forecasting. They’d never done that before. I ended up showing them how to use Excel.” He quickly learned credit unions in Cambodia are indeed in the very early stages of development. Backers are not only trying to educate people about what cooperatives and credit unions are, but are trying to develop basic financial understanding and teach people why they should save. “There’s a high level of illiteracy in Cambodia, plus a lack of trust of other people because of the Khmer Rouge. In fact, the term `credit union’ in the minds of many people refers to Khmer Rouge days. So credit unions are called savings banks. People are also not trusting of any kind of governmental institution,” Okuchi says. That means the Cambodian Community Savings Federation, for which Okuchi worked, is training volunteers who can go into neighborhoods to teach literacy and basic financial concepts. Cambodians tend to rely on their neighborhood social network, so a savings bank branch may open in someone’s house. Each month residents of that village may come together with what they’ve been able to save, then loan money to someone who needs to buy a tractor, dig a well or purchase fertilizer. The five-year effort in Ukraine is funded by $4.3 million from the Canadian International Development Agency. Since 1993 some 150 Ukranian credit unions have been supported by Canada. Now the focus is on professionalizing credit unions there, improving security to protect members deposits, and strengthening the national federation. Thanks to new laws, supporters believe previous gains can be consolidated in a new regulatory framework. [email protected]

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