Monday, December 14, 2015

Credit Unions, plus the Prime Minister

When I began my federal career back in 1985, I immediately joined the NASA Federal Credit Union. It just made sense to me to join a credit union, especially when they operated in the same building where I worked. The variety of financial services they offered (including the excellent customer service) was just as important as the convenience. For these same reasons, I joined the credit union at my workplace in Parkersburg when I transferred there, and still maintain an account there to this day.

Credit unions are also an essential part of the history of the Peace Corps. I learned from reading a few books about the Peace Corps that starting credit unions was an early emphasis for the new agency as they got started in various Third World countries. It was an important way of helping poor people to be able to save money and get loans that big banks would not make.

Thus, I was pleased when I moved to Dominica and discovered that my host mom and my host sister both worked for Dominica's National Co-operative Credit Union (NCCU). More importantly, there is a sub-branch of this credit union in our village, which is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as a branch in the capital city of Roseau. That is important because the Peace Corps requires us to open a bank account at a certain international bank in the capital. This is because this particular international bank has offices on all four islands where we serve, so the Peace Corps can electronically distribute money to all volunteers with one transaction.

Thus, I simply withdraw my monthly Peace Corps allowance from the big international bank (located in the capital which is an hour and a half bus ride away from my village), walk up the street, and deposit it in the NCCU's Roseau branch. Once it is in my account, I can easily get it out over the month from the sub-branch in my village. Not very many other Peace Corps Volunteers have branches in their villages, so I feel very lucky.

Some of you might notice that this arrangement still requires a long bus trip once a month to the capital city. Yes, indeed it does, but Dominica's education system is set up with a day off near the end of each month. This day off is known as "salary day," because it was the day that teachers from all over the island came to the capital to get their money. Life in the Third World is not the same as in America, where electronic banking, countless ATMs, and other conveniences abound.

One noble aspect of a credit union is that members have a voice in how they operate. Yesterday, there was a special general meeting of the NCCU to consider a resolution allowing two other independent credit unions to join our national network. It was held at the school in Vieille Case, a town not far from my village. Buses don't run on Sundays, but the NCCU made arrangements to provide transportation from all the villages they serve to get to this afternoon meeting. They also provided a box lunch and drinks for those who came.

A couple hundred people were there (enough to meet the regulations for a quorum). Upon registering, attendees were given an official ballot. After the meeting was convened, questions about the merger were answered, and eventually the time came for voting. It was “democracy in action” as everyone deposited their marked ballots into the ballot box. Once everyone had voted, the ballots were counted one-by-one for all to see. The resolution was approved with about 90% in favor.

Today (Monday), I returned to the exact same location. The massive tent and folding chairs on the Vieille Case school's front lawn had been left in place for a special occasion. A Dominica native who now resides in England had recently been elected to be the head of the Commonwealth Nations—the grouping of all former countries of the British Empire. The Prime Minister of Dominica had arranged to honor her ascension by changing the name of the primary school he had attended to the Baroness Patricia Scotland Primary School.

This was a big political event, and in addition to the Vieille Case school children, two other nearby schools (including the one where I work) were invited to bring their students along in their colorful uniforms to mark the occasion. After all the speeches were over, everyone was treated to free refreshments (similar to what had been served at the NCCU function the previous afternoon).

At the conclusion, I had the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, on the school grounds (as shown above in a picture taken by one of my students). It was quite an honor to shake his hand and talk briefly with the head of my host country. All in all, it was an interesting couple of days spent in the city down the road. But then again, virtually every day in the Peace Corps is an interesting day!

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