LIVELY, Ontario – When most credit union managers take a winter break from work it might be skiing or escaping to a beach retreat, but not Robert Clark, general manager of Community Savings and Credit Union in Lively. He chose to spend three weeks helping credit unions in rural Ghana under the auspices of a program run by the Canadian Co-operative Association. In doing so, he found an involved people ready to improve their lives and those of others. This was his second experience with CCA. Three years before, CCA Women's Mentoring program arranged a visit to Lively for a woman from Cape Town South Africa. Clark's credit union, with its 61 years of history and its CND$38.5 million in assets, was able to provide technical information. When he heard of the CCA's program to provide technical assistance to all areas of credit union work in Ghana, he applied. He and his wife had talked many times about how they wanted to make a contribution to developing credit unions and countries. She, his three sons and his parents were very supportive, as was his board of directors who felt "honored" that they had a chance to participate through Clark. Clark was one of 10 volunteers who flew to Accra via London on Jan. 26. He was to partner with Laurie Gallant, an operations specialist from Prince Edward Island. Although Clark had traveled to developing countries in the past, this was his first African trip. Clark met with Credit Union Association of Ghana at their Cape Coast Office. What struck him as they entered the parking lot was a bumper sticker on a car that read "Ghana Credit Unions – the Power to Change the World." Changing Ghana and the world was a theme that would run through his trip. Each day he and Gallant traveled 80 kilometers north to a small town called Twifu Praso. The countryside they passed was lush and green with grasslands and a red sandy clay soil. "Yes, there were open sewers and many run down shacks with steel roofs. In the country we saw many homes made of clay and straw roofs, but there were many homes made of concrete blocks and stucco, showing a growing middle class, a country fighting to improve." He says he heard almost every day, "We are building a country." People told him about the new public health system as an example. He wasn't there to tell them what to do but rather to ask, "How can I help you?" Clark says at first people were reticent but quickly opened up. He worked with directors, credit committees and supervisory committees on lending procedures, documentation, cash control, delinquency and record keeping. He reviewed lending procedures, documentation and delinquency Savings, he says, is a new concept to many people, especially to the uneducated, but that is changing. Members can borrow up to two times their savings if they have proper guarantors, but that can present problems in a country where "there is no method of taking collateral and registering it." He found two types of credit unions: the teacher/government employee credit unions and the community credit unions. "My limited experience showed that the teacher/government credit unions tended to be the most successful. This is because they had payroll deduction from the government, which makes savings and loan payments almost automatic. I think that most of these people had more education and adapted to the saving and loan principles more readily. The community credit unions have a more difficult time. They spend a lot of effort in education and lend to the street merchants, trade people and farmers." However, he was again struck by the motivations. "In both (types of) credit unions you saw the same positive attitude that they are helping to improve the standard of living of the membership and the communities in which they live." Credit bureaus and legislation to support credit unions and protect security are needed, Clark feels, to protect the security of the rapidly growing credit union movement. He pointed out that the credit unions tend to see themselves as individual organizations rather than part of a movement. But like the Ghanaians he worked with, Clark is optimistic about the future. "Credit unions are growing rather quickly. Operational procedures as well as proper lending procedures need to be implemented. Boards of directors need to be more concerned about the financial areas of the credit union rather than trying to be in control of the day-to-day operations. This is already beginning to happen and those that do will survive. To me this is just a natural progression." When asked if he would do it again he said, "I'd pack my bag tonight." -


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