Poles put confidence in credit unions

Anna Cichoblazinska talks to Grzegorz Bierecki, President of Poland's National Association of Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions and second vice chair of World Council of Credit Unions.

Anna Cichoblazinska: – How can we explain the phenomenon of credit unions that in the middle of the world economic crisis have lost nothing of their members’ savings but show a growth tendency, which is testified by the results of the credit unions at the end of 2010?

Grzegorz Bierecki: – The answer is very simple. The cooperative savings and credit unions give what people need from a financial institution. First of all, their offer is for everyone and on fair conditions. The savings and credit unions protect people against usury. It turns out that such a simple solution is effective on a larger scale. The bank crisis, which began in the USA and affected the whole world, need not influence credit unions. Again one can see that credit unions offer protection for savers during a bank crisis.
The Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions are financial institutions built only on Polish capital. During the three quarters of 2010 over 117,000 people became members of our credit unions, which means a ca. 6% increase. The number of our members is expected to be 2,180,000 till the end of the year. During this time the members saved over 1.6 billion zloty, which is a 15.4% increase. Thus one can see a high level of trust in our credit unions as safe, stable institutions to entrust one’s savings with.

– The Polish Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions are not lonely islands. They form a part of the world movement of credit unions directed to less affluent social groups or even the excluded groups. What is the place of the Polish institution in the structure of the credit union movement? The re-election of the President of the Polish Savings and Credit Unions as second vice chair of World Council of Credit Unions is meaningful.

– In the whole world similar institutions (known as credit unions, which I have already mentioned) have over 185 million people in 98 countries in 50,000 credits unions. They are associated in World Council of Credit Unions, Inc., with the headquarters in Madison, USA). WOCCU is an international association of credit unions created in 1971. The assets of credit unions in the world amount to over 1.2 billion dollars. The influence of the crisis is minimal because of the specific character of their activities. In the USA and Canada our credit unions and their development are often shown as examples of perfectly organised financial institutions that give Poles the possibility to have good services on fair conditions. These countries see that what they have created for several decades we have been able to create much quickly. And the election of the Polish President of the National Association of Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions as second vice chair of World Council of Credit confirms our efforts and work for the cause of the development of credit unions not only in Poland but also in this part of Europe.

– In their activities and mission the Polish Associate Savings & Credit Unions refer to the pre-war cooperative movement with its roots in the times of the partitions. Have the cooperative activities in other sectors of economy any chances to develop after the inglorious experiences of the ‘communist cooperative movement?’

– All our principles are deeply rooted in the social teaching of the Church and in the Gospel – we speak about love of your neighbour. In his most important speech on credit unions Franciszek Stefczyk noted that if one’s egoism was controlled by love of neighbour, if everyone learned to care for his own interests and the needs of his neighbour in economic labour and earnings this work would not raise some and humiliate others but would raise all. This is the aim of our credit unions and our strength results from these principles. The cooperative savings and credit unions have helped many people realise their financial dreams and for many, which I often stress, were the last resort. In Poland there is a common saying that our credit unions are ‘human financial institutions.’ And ‘human’ means for people and not against them. Poles trust in our credit unions and the credit unions show that the cooperative movement – in our case the financial cooperative movement – need not be poor at all. On the contrary, it can be and is friendly and can serve people as best as possible. Please remember that the cooperative movement is one of the most dynamically developing segments of life in Europe, America, Australia or Africa. I cannot see any reasons why it would be different in Poland.

– The Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions refer to the roots of solidarity, Catholic faith and patriotism. Their logo is in many cultural projects. Have such values and activities any meaning in an institution the main task of which is to care for its members’ finances?

– The Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions are not only economy. They are not limited to economic activities but conduct charity actions. Many people and institutions receive financial help. Important cultural events can count on our inspiration and support. During 18 years of their activities the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions have given many million zloty for charities; they supported orphanages, nursery schools and children from the poorest families. They do not forget about disabled children, giving them money. They also finance summer camps for the poorest children. One can state with certainty that the recognition the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions enjoy in Poland and in the international arena results from these pro-social actions to a large extent, and the words of appraisal concerning the biggest success in the history of the world credit unions, which was the restoration of financial self-help in Poland, refer to the fact that this mission is realised systematically and consistently.
Let us remember that the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions are where their members are. They grew from our Polish roots and try to support natural places – centres of Polish families. And such places are also parishes. That’s why the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions financed a new tabernacle for the Archcathedral in Gdansk-Oliwa. Earlier they supported the restoration of the tabernacle in the altar in the Chapel of Our Lady in Czestochowa and this was not the only time the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions marked their presence in the spiritual capital of Poland. During the Pilgrimage of Working Men to Jasna Gora in September 2005, some members of the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions offered an amber-diamond robe, known as ‘The Dedication Robe’ for the picture of Our Lady. During the visit of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Homeland of John Paul II the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions offered a set of furniture for the Jasna Gora altar at which the celebrations with the distinguished guest were held.
The biggest Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions named after Franciszek Stefczyk were involved in the creation of ‘Sinfonia Jubilate,’ a musical piece composed by Gedymin Grubba to the lyrics of John Paul II, Stanislaw H. Lubomirski and Zbigniew Herbert. This work was dedicated to Poland’s Primate Cardinal Jozef Glemp as thanksgiving for his long-term service for the good of the Church, the Nation and Poland.

– The year 2010, called the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, is about to end. What activities has the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions undertaken to diminish the area of these alarming phenomena?

– There have been many actions. At the beginning of the year there was a conference devoted to struggle against financial and social exclusion, held at ‘Zlote Tarasy’ in Warsaw. Together with some representatives of the world of science and economy we discussed real ways to struggle against poverty and social exclusion.
In the editorial board of the national paper ‘Rzeczpospolita’ under the patronage of the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions there was a debate entitled ‘Financial Services for All Poles’, on the financial condition of Polish families and proposals to train skills useful to deal with the market of financial services. Scientists, representatives of the government, social organisations and the media were invited. They focused on the role of the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions, which contrary to banks are non-profit and give the whole profit for development and education conducted within the framework of the Stefczyk Institute, founded thanks to the Foundation for Polish Credit Unions, for the less affluent part of the society.
Summing up the debate, its participants stressed the value of education and information in diminishing the areas of financial exclusion as well as the value and availability of inexpensive financial services for less affluent social groups. They paid attention to the role of the cooperative movement as a community form of cooperative movement enjoying full rights. In the period of overcoming crisis it is these various forms of economic activities, not always profit-oriented, that can help the excluded become rightful members of society.

– The UN will announce the next year as the International Year of Co-operatives. How can you see the place of the cooperative movement in Polish economy, which is so strongly connected with international institutions?

– The European Commission announced 2010 as the Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. For the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions it was a year of special actions to struggle against this phenomenon. The UN International Year of Co-operatives is another chance to show the advantages of the cooperative movement, with its all values for people’s lives. Therefore, it is worth continuing these activities with increased diligence, aiming at promoting the cooperative movement in our country.
I cannot understand the situation when we support extremely easily foreign institutions with the capital we have gained with so much effort. I cannot understand it because the state institutions do not discern the advantages of the Polish cooperative movement. But it is the cooperative movement that appears as an alternative form of management on the economic market and its key advantage is the social factor building a feeling of safety. The activities of the Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions in Poland prove that they are future forms of social integration and alternative economic solutions. That’s why it is worth seeing the cooperative movement as one of the most important areas of development of our country as well as of Europe and the whole world.

"Niedziela" 1/2011

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl