League members sold on benefits of credit unions

– determined to take movement forward despite challenges

Members of the Board of the Guyana Cooperative Credit Union League (GCCUL) concede that credit unions in Guyana have seen better times. Indeed, time was when the cooperative enjoyed much greater national prominence. The now defunct Guyana National Cooperative Bank served as a flagship for the cooperative movement amidst a flotilla of smaller ‘vessels’ that included modest entrepreneurial ventures managed by groups that had banded themselves together at the urging of a political administration committed to ensuring that the cooperative sector became dominant in the economy.

That never happened and while it would be far from accurate to suggest that the cooperative movement has failed in Guyana, what is undoubtedly true is that it has gone through ‘the wars’ – so to speak – and has emerged jaded and weakened. The collapse of the Guyana National Cooperative Bank was perhaps the most visible failure of the movement, though the period of crisis was attended by the disappearance of scores of other entrepreneurial ventures that had their origin during the halcyon days.

It has been much the same with credit unions. They have survived without really prospering, held together out of members’ recognition that in these difficult times access to lending at rates of interest that are manifestly more attractive than commercial bank rates is not a facility to be underestimated. It is a circumstance that GCCUL Board member Gavin Primo regrets. He believes that despite its challenges, the credit union movement has made positive strides, teaching members thrift and providing an alternative savings stream to the conventional commercial banking system. Still, there are others who feel that the approximately 29,000 members of local credit unions ought to have been at least doubled by now.

President of the Guyana Cooperative Credit Union League  Denise Benjamin
President of the Guyana Cooperative Credit Union League
Denise Benjamin

While the GCCUL cannot be held responsible for the day-to-day functioning of credit unions it is not difficult to understand why board members might sometimes regard the weaknesses of credit unions as mirror images of the league’s limitations.

The role of the GCCUL is, in its broadest sense, “to contribute to the development of higher standards of credit union management, operation and supervision.” The league is charged with the growth and development of the credit union community.

It is the GCCUL, largely, that leads the way in offering guidance on the running of credit unions and where, as sometimes appears to be the case, there is evidence of indiscipline it is often the league that takes the ‘rap.’

As recently as two years ago, a local forum put together by the GCCUL and the Ministry of Labour admonished credit unions over a range of misdemeanours including non-compliance with managerial guidelines and governance principles for cooperatives. Current experience suggests that the league remains some distance away from securing compliance with regulations across the board from credit unions. That notwithstanding, evidence of governance challenges in the running of trade unions persist aplenty so that members have, in some instances, become cynical about the usefulness of the plethora of conferences and training sessions that are available to officials and which, in their view, are frequently not matched by positive change.

Primo prefers to look ahead rather than to become mired in the past. The focus, he says, has to be on the enhanced suite of services that goes beyond lending for purposes which, these days, can be as mundane as paying arrears on electricity bills. Primo talks about expanding the services that credit unions provide by including services being offered by the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). At the moment the league is preoccupied with securing official endorsement for CUNA’s Family Indemnity Plan, a facility that offers financial relief in times of bereavement.

President of the League Denise Benjamin, who speaks with discomfiting frankness about management shortcomings, says that the league is still to communicate with the local Commissioner of Insurance. That, evidently, irks her. There are other limitations too. Board Member Aubrey Crawford refers to “an absence of consensus among board members as to how to get things done.”  What is also painfully apparent is evidence of differences of opinion regarding how credit unions should be managed and instances of controversy over how the movement should be managed.

The league appears defensive, if far from defeatist, about the fact that local credit unions may still have a long road to travel to catch up with some of its regional counterparts. The Bahamas and Jamaica are perhaps among the better examples in the Caribbean of credit unions that have embraced entrepreneurship; and done well. Primo, Benjamin and Crawford admit that local credit unions are “off the pace”. Benjamin goes further, hinting that she does not always get the support of some of her colleagues in pursuit of policies designed to take the credit union movement forward.

Still, they remain hopeful, perhaps even resolute. Primo, particularly, emphasises the importance of what credit unions are able to offer at this time. “Credit unions seek to teach thrift. We try to show them [members] how to save,” he said.

One does not expect GCCUL Board members to accept that local credit unions are in crisis. That having been said, the evidence to that effect is worrying. Emphasis on the role of the credit union in changing people’s lives does not alter the fact that, these days, members’ interest is confined largely to taking advantage of the lending facility. The 29,000-odd members ought to represent a constituency, but there is no evidence of commensurate influence on the GCCUL’s part. Worse still, is the fact that a lack of real growth on the part of local credit unions, appears to have taken place despite sustained exposure to training, much of it undergone overseas and provided at considerable cost.

Benjamin believes that the credit union remains relevant and that its perceived limitations must be seen in the context of the wider challenges facing the society. The league, she says, has not given up on significantly expanding the role of the credit union though she believes that credit unions are responsive to contemporary economic realities. “Of course we know where we want to go but the reality is that people are borrowing to liquidate debts. There is a need there and in that respect people are benefiting. We appreciate the need for change but change is a process.”

She advocates education and training though she hints at concerns over what she describes as “individual ambitions” compared with the collective goals of the movement.

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