By V Chris Williams – SLWCU
AS we celebrate International Credit Union Day today, if one had to summarize the role or mission of credit unions throughout their more than 50 years of existence in Saint Lucia, it would be to provide their members affordable financial services, not to gouge them as profit centres as other financial institutions are apt to do.
Credit union operations in Saint Lucia have not been easy. Those with strong membership and asset bases are thriving but smaller ones continue to face challenges with regard to growth and viability.
As I write a new thrust for mergers/amalgamations among these credit unions is emerging. The requirement to address additional regulations (e.g FATCA – Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act; AML-CFT – Anti-Money Laundering – Combating the Finance of Terrorism), member’s demands among many other issues, have left some credit unions fighting to survive.
Nevertheless, in spite of the ever present problems of running a financial institution, credit unions will not give up. They continue to work assiduously to address the issues they face, at the same time focusing on providing a safe place to save and borrow at reasonable rates that are in the best interest of their members. The Prime Minister, Dr. Kenny Anthony, on September 22, 2014 said to participants of a Caribbean Credit Union Development Education (CaribDE) Programme at Villa Sta. Maria, Coubaril, Castries, Saint Lucia, ‘Credit Unions tread where banks fear to go’.
Similarly, Pope Francis in Bolivia in July spoke of credit unions/cooperatives creating “work where there were only crumbs of an idolatrous economy.” In February, in a speech before the Confederation of Italian Cooperatives, Pope Francis said credit unions/cooperatives must continue to be “the motor that uplifts and develops the weakest parts of our local communities and civil society.” Late last year, at a meeting with international cooperative representatives, Pope Francis reiterated that credit unions/cooperatives were a crucial way to deal with some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Over the years, international credit union/ cooperative development has produced some remarkable results, including: 100,000 dairy cooperatives in India benefitting 12 million members; 119 rural electric cooperatives in the Philippines serving more than 40 million people; and nearly 47,000 credit unions providing affordable, reliable financial services to more than 90 million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In 2014 worldwide credit union statistics show: 57,000 credit unions in 105 countries serve roughly 217 million members; savings summed US$1.5 trillion whilst loans and assets stood at US$1.2 trillion and >US$1.8 trillion respectively.
The Caribbean has also produced some outstanding results as it relates to credit union/cooperative development. There are above 350 credit unions serving over 2 million members in 17 countries. As at December 31, 2014, members’ savings amounted to US$4.8 billion, loans were circa US$3.9 billion, reserves stood at roughly US$672 million, at the same time total assets hovered around a whopping US$5.8 billion.
In Saint Lucia, credit unions/cooperatives fill some critical gaps in the economy as well —with 16 credit unions attending to nearly 75,000 members, alongside about 22 producer cooperatives (excluding schools coop) organized around financial services, food distribution, housing, retail, agriculture and more.
These member-owned institutions and not-for-profit organizations that exist to serve their members rather than to maximize corporate profits, are responsible for roughly 222 jobs (directly associated with the movement), more than EC$600 million in assets, in excess of EC$14.8 million in annual revenue and over EC$8 million in annual wages and benefits; savings exceed EC$464 million whilst loans stand at over EC$443.3 million with reserves surpassing EC$62 million.
Despite these significant numbers, many in this country don’t understand or appreciate the credit union business model or they view it as a “tiboutik” organisation. The credit union movement is only as strong as the number of people we are able to bring into it and serve, which is why the next time you pass the premises of the St Lucia Workers’ Credit Union at Gable Woods or Grass Street, pause for a moment and consider whether or not the credit union would be the right choice for you.
Let us embrace credit unions so that we can give new impetus to the movement at this opportune time.
Happy ICU Day