As I write this I am looking at pictures of Mongolia on my laptop, trying to put my thoughts in order so that I can share with you, what has for me, been a life altering experience.
It is thanks to the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) International Development Program that I find myself at this junction in my life. The CCA has been working internationally (and yes, if you are wondering, this does include Canada) to establish and grow co-operatives, credit unions and community based organizations to reduce poverty, build sustainable livelihoods and improve civil society.
I was chosen along with seven other credit union professionals from across Canada to travel to Mongolia and share our knowledge and experience. Our goal as coaches was to help local credit unions to work towards “the common good” as it is referred to in Mongolia, so that members can move out of poverty…for good. It is part of a larger effort by CCA to turn poverty into prosperity. A daunting task!
My Mongolian experience was centered in Ulaanbaatar the capital city, although several of the other coaches also worked in rural areas. Mongolia for me is best described as a country of contrasts. With hundreds of years of recorded history the Mongolians are a proud and respectful people who love the land and are fearlessly proud of their country. It is for this reason that one can miss the abject poverty that now exists in some sections of the population.
Under soviet influence until 1990 the Mongolian parliament has only been operating as a democratic system for just over 20 years. The pace of change has been intense. Mongolia is working hard to improve its economy. They have brought their unemployment rate down from over 30 per cent after the collapse of the Soviet system, to around 10 per cent, however inflation is running rampant at over 11 per cent. Considering that 30 per cent of the population is currently under the age of 15, unemployment continues to be a significant concern. What makes Mongolia unusual is the exceptionally high literacy rate (over 80 per cent) coupled with a very strong cultural expectation that everyone should obtain a university education.
Most of the employees we meet at the credit unions have university level educations; however the minimum wage for a full time employee is $150 Canadian a month, with the average wage for a teller running between $500-$600 per month. When we ask how much rent would be for a one room apartment in UB we are advised that is would run between $400-$500 per month, so how do people survive?
The truth is that it is hard, and many are considered “unbankable” that is where the credit union comes in.
Credit unions are providing loans to many of those who would otherwise fall through the cracks and get lost. We meet with a number of members, “the lady with two cows” who put her three sons through university after getting a loan for two more cows (she now has 10 cows and is considered very successful), a couple of young entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of Mongolia’s emerging market economy to improve their future, and a member who is starting a daycare/orphanage in the ger district. Ger’s (pronounced gar) are traditional Mongolian homes; round in shape, they are made of felt and can be taken down and transported to a new location relatively quickly.
The credit union system is just in its infancy in Mongolia, with the first CU law passed only last year we find ourselves facing questions that cover everything from governance to policy and procedure development, concentration risk to security and audit requirement the list goes on. As we shared our experience it is soon clear that as usual the exchange of knowledge was a two-way street.
I was reminded of the goals of the credit union system, the foundation that it was established on, and left to ponder the question, are we doing enough at home?
My co-op partner had been to Mongolia before and she shared with me the changes over the last three years and I was both astounded and impressed. Working with extremely basic systems the Mongolian Credit Union system is striving forward. I shouldn’t be surprised, after all their founding members come from a people who have survived hundreds of years of warfare, who live in a country that has some of the most extreme weather in the world (UB is the coldest capital city in the world), who have for centuries packed up their homes on the back of a camel and set out across the land with only the stars to guide them. Far be it for them to let a little thing like a change of political direction or an economic collapse to get in their way.
For more information on this experience check out my Mongolian blog http://www.icuinmongolia.blogspot.ca or go to the CCA website at http://coopscanada.coop or come on in to the Credit Union between Oct 16 to 20th and check out our Mongolian display.