Welcome to CCA’s international development blog page … the sights and sounds, the people and places as experienced by credit union and co-operative volunteers on the frontline of development.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Endless Blue Skies

Many times Mongolia has been at a crossroads – Chinggis Khaan in 1206; socialism in the 30`s; market economy restructuring in the 1990`s; and, the recent financial crisis.  And so it is with the credit union movement here, as they work to mature along the co-operative path. In a land renowned for an ancient path – the Silk Road.

An ancient wisdom says to, “Stand at the crossroads and ask, where the good path is…   and walk in it.” Enter the CCA Coaching Program to answer the call. The objective in sharing our experience, expertise and tools could be summed up by the Turkish Proverb, “A small key opens big doors.” My sense is that we have unlocked some of the potential resident in the Mongolian credit union system, and that they have the ability, drive and passion to move through those doors to a brighter future.
2010 Mongolia Coaching Team
Our work these past two weeks has been focused at three levels – credit union, apex organization, and regulatory/legislative. The approach has proven complimentary and synergistic. Recommendations provided by the team were relevant, practical and actionable. There were common themes at all levels and I would summarize by citing the five key priority areas that have been defined overall, and for which a number of recommendations have been made. These are:

  1. Implementation of savings deposit guarantee insurance.
  2. Liquidity and Stabilization fund creation.
  3. Credit Bureau reporting.
  4. Bad loan recovery.
  5. Building the future.
At our concluding session, a comment by N. Oyunchimeg from the Financial Regulatory Commission stood out: “[I am] strongly confident that the credit union system will succeed and grow rapidly.”

I know the coaches join me in expressing our heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to our Mongolian colleagues and friends for their open and frank approach to our business discussions; for their outstanding hospitality; and, for a generosity of spirit as big as their endless blue sky.   

To Sarah and everyone at CCA, thank you for a meaningful opportunity to make a difference in the broad co-operative community. It has been a privilege to work with such a great group of coaches. They were well prepared, flexible, deeply interested in the subject matter, the culture, context and environment, and made strong relational connections. Be assured they were excellent ambassadors for CCA, the credit union system and for Canada.

And most importantly, deepest thanks to my wife Pamela and my family for your support and allowing this itinerant coach to follow his personal sense of mission. As I bid farewell from the land of the endless blue sky, know that my heart has already made the journey home.

Bayartai (goodbye) from Mongolia.

Until our paths cross again…   on the
Co-operative Road

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the things you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”      - Mark Twain

CCA Itinerant Coach    

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Good Word Travels

What do you do when your world suddenly changes? Or a friend needs help? Or you can pass on a good word or deed? In the 1990`s Mongolia abruptly changed from socialism to a market economy. It turns out she is a small, nimble country – able to adapt and move forward where other, larger economies would undoubtedly endure a long, drawn out struggle.

During this period, Gantuya`s garment factory – where she had worked for 12 years, was privatized. Her reaction? Buy one of the old sewing machines and strike out on her own. After all, she had the skill and like many Mongolians, an entrepreneurial flair. 
L-R:Gantuya, entrepreneur; Altan, credit union director; and Ken, CCA coach.

Now growing a coat business is not easy as there are many hats to wear, including financial manager. But growth means a need for capital. So when she found the banks too complicated and time consuming, Gantuya was stuck. 
Meeting her, I was impressed by her caring nature. So it should be no surprise that she has good friends. Water attracts water. It was one such friend that brought her to a credit union office on the fourth floor of a building that houses small retail entrepreneurs and their little shops/stalls. Interesting coincidence? I think not – remember the water. A good word and a good deed and Gantuya had her loan. That was two years and four loans ago.
The good word that travelled across Ulaanbaatar bringing Gantuya to her credit union now carries news of her outstanding reputation for quality to the westernmost parts of Mongolia. Her coat business is thriving and she is tireless. In fact she was sewing almost right up to the moment of our meeting at her credit union, to present and discuss the coaching findings and recommendations.
Today she has a stall in the local marketplace; her husband is selling the coats in the west; and, she is expanding into trousers and jackets. How does she sum up her business motivation and strategy? “To make a more affordable product and keep people warm” she explains simply. Their living standard has improved, school fees for their son are paid and they have a small savings plan at the credit union.     
It reminds me of a statue I was taken to see in Erdenet. It was of Otgonbileg, a local hero. The inscription roughly translates to, “Once the sun is rising it means a new day is coming for your life. In this day you must do good things.”
What good word or deed will you do today? A good word travels, so let’s pay it forward.


The Great Mongolian Horse Race

We have taken to calling the Ulaanbaatar traffic – an endless stream of bumper to bumper chaos accompanied by a cacophony of horns (which at times passes for the daily commute), the Mongolian horse race. Drivers wield models of vehicles unknown in North America like mounts out on the steppe, with little attention paid to mundane things like traffic lights, lanes, or pedestrians.

Don’t get me wrong, they are very skilled drivers who are able to manoeuvre at speed only centimetres…   even millimetres, from each other. If you weren’t skilled, not to mention rather brash, survival would be doubtful. This race is only for the stout of heart. A credit union director explained that if you get the head of your horse in front of another during a race, the rider can do what he wants…   and that is how they drive! To complete the picture, her board chair wanted me to understand that pedestrians are really just pasture. Pasture?! I thought I was getting lost in translation, but now we know better.

Being a pedestrian in UB is unlike anything I have ever experienced, including the bustle of Kampala. Martin – our master of the one-liners summed it up perfectly…   “high-stakes frogger.” Imagine crossing three or four lanes of traffic one at a time by trying to gain a tenuous purchase on each successive thinly marked lane divider. Oh and did I mention that the racers don’t get the idea of lanes? So now you’re standing on the first “line”, cars whizzing by front and back as your nerve slowly wanes - looking…   hoping for an opening. And don’t follow the teenagers as they play UB frogger, it will only leave you stranded. They are quick and bold, with finely honed reflexes. And apparently we foreigners are just pasture.    

Of course what is a race without prizes? Here it is great food and fellowship; cashmere; articles of felt, camel and wool made by small producer co-ops; silver bowls; and other treasures. So saddle up and let’s ride!


Tsogtoo, Altan and Ken

l to r - Tsogtoo, entrepreneur; Altan, director; Ken, CCA Coach

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Helping Others

This week all the coaches are working in the capital, Ulaanbaatar (UB). Monday we hit the ground running at our new assignments. Having met with the board chair and CEO of my credit union when I first arrived, we were able to plan the week in advance. They were ready first thing with an informative and insightful PowerPoint presentation, including priorities and challenges.

I am impressed by the leadership – whose balanced view includes the macro-environment and longer term. Their passion is contagious and their desire to grow and contribute more to the livelihoods of the members is deep and authentic.

The credit union was started in 2001 by three women who were long time friends, in the home of Altan – whose name means golden flower. And yes it has blossomed despite the financial crisis, thanks in no small measure to the founders` continued leadership and support, along with an active membership.

They graciously excused me during the first day for a two hour meeting with the commissioner of the Financial Regulatory Commission. Dale, Scott and I had the opportunity to discuss the proposed credit union legislation slated for the parliamentary standing committee next week. We provided input from a Canadian perspective around a variety of issues including savings deposit insurance; stabilization and liquidity management; mandatory training for directors; language around meeting quorum requirements; and, the need for credit bureau reporting access. The legislation appears to be enabling in nature, allowing for a more sustainable macro-environment for credit unions to operate. It is another step forward along the evolutionary path of a maturing credit union sector – one that the commissioner clearly appreciates and supports.

As I work this week, I continue to be impacted by the powerful, personal stories shared by members I meet:
In the ger city portion of UB, everyone carries water. Nobody knows this better than Tsogtoo – he has lived here all his life. For many years he worked at a hard and dangerous job – welding petroleum tankers. Even though he is still in demand he admits with a smile, he has found a new vocation with the help of his credit union. Thanks to loans for materials, he now makes and sells carts for carrying water. “I have no burden in my soul,” Tsogtoo tells me sincerely. “[The] service is so good I don’t feel burdened by the loan.” That only seems fair Tsogtoo, you are helping others carry their burdens now.

And what has this relationship contributed to the family’s standard of living. His wife and three children now have a small house in the district, co-located with his business. His young son can now attend the “Lemuujin Wrestling School” – a dream come true for young Mongolian men. It is after all the country’s great sport. And it runs in the family, on his mother’s side.

Without a commitment to community by the credit union and Tsogtoo, the ambition of the next generation might not be realized. Now that’s what I call carrying the water!

The Itinerant Coach

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A van full of Canadians...

Overheard in a van full of Canadians in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia:

Random Torontonian: What part of Manitoba are you from?

Martin McInnis: Saskatchewan.

Random Torontonian: Oh.

Trudy Rasmuson: Bahahahahahahahaha!!!

Yee-Guan Wong

(Editors note: Yee-Guan Wong is from Toronto)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Uphill climbing

Friday 6:00 a.m. - I am sitting at my computer feeling the burden of my coaching role. The credit union faces major challenges as a result of the impact of the financial crisis on its members. Can I deliver enough to make a difference? A number of practical suggestions to improve efficiency, effectiveness and accessibility by members will be put on the table. Several courses of action will be outlined to address the major challenge - most of which will be under someone else’s control. I am hopeful, yet pragmatic - it will be an uphill battle.

The day unfolds quickly as the report is finalized - punctuated by a conversation with an agronomist member at the credit union who has come in for a $50 loan for personal needs. He stops by to chat because he saw the TV interview and he wants me to understand how important the credit union is for him and the subsistence farmers and herders he knows. The knot in my stomach tightens.

The scene quickly changes in mid afternoon - much like the weather here, and my interpreter, the CEO and a member who has driven up from Ulaanbaatar (UB) to open her ger camp for us are now traveling through the snow on a trail across the steppe to a camp nestled in the hills. The car takes us farther than expected - the tires being completely bald and we then walk the rest of the way to a herder’s ger for a short visit and the traditional hospitality - airag. Yes, it is always fermented.

After our visit we hike up to a steep mountain ridge to visit a sacred tree. It is difficult enough in my runners and the CEO is in high heels and suffering from a bronchial infection. She has come to pray for her credit union.

Soon we are at the ger camp and a meal of buuz - meat filled dumplings, is being prepared as we sip milk tea. I am about to become welcomed into the heart of Mongolia. A jug of homemade vodka, steeped in an age old concoction of nettle and other herbs appears, along with a silver drinking bowl - a family heirloom. The bowl is filled by our host and words of honor and esteem - borne of an ancient etiquette are shared. We drink. It is my turn to respond and I find that the words flow without hesitation, heartfelt and sincere. We drink. And we continue, caught up in the moment.

My hosts then begin to sing, one at a time - songs of nature and of mother, the melody rising like wind words...   and I realize my stomach is no longer tight. When it is my turn to sing there is no doubt...   Amazing Grace. We smile and talk as if time has stood still.

Like waking from a dream it is time to dash back to the city for our board meeting before catching the train back to the capital, UB. The meeting goes well and there is unity and a firm resolve to press forward.

The air seems more invigorating as we stride towards the train, yet I know winter is coming and can’t help but wonder what it will bring to Erdenet – which the CEO called `her beautiful city`.

(The Itinerant Coach)