Three years on for the Credit Union Development Project in Timor-Leste, by Ratha Ra.
Ringed by coral reefs teeming with marine life, bound by rugged mountains and blessed with spectacular scenery, Timor-Leste may be the youngest country in South East Asia, but it’s one with a great future awaiting it.
Timor-Leste became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century on 20 May 2002, finally achieving independence after centuries of struggle, first with Portugal and then Indonesia.
When CUFA kicked off its Credit Union Development (CUD) project in Timor-Leste in 2012, self-determination was not even on the agenda for the East Timorese: for centuries they had been farmers or fishermen, living in scattered hamlets and eating what they grew. Even trading and shop keeping had for generations been in the hands of Chinese.
The mountainous terrain meant that the majority of East Timorese lived in isolation, far from towns and foreign influence, tied to their fields and subsistence culture. And a world away from access to basic financial services or the power of financial literacy training.
Starting from the ground up with workshops and meetings, CUD now works across Timor-Leste in ten villages and three sub?districts – Remixo, Letofoho and Maubisse. For the first time ever, these subsistence farmers had access to financial services and were able to receive loans.
The number one priority, however, was first to gain people’s trust. We met Agustinha Henrique, a 34 year old mother of three and now a credit union member: “For the first time in my life I heard about the credit union and I was so concerned about my money when they started to ask me to join and save money,” she said.
“I questioned myself: is it safe to keep my money with them? What are the benefits for me to save my money? After giving myself a chance to join and understand about the program, it took me a year to trust the program, but now my savings are $561.00 in total. I am very happy to see a lot of money. I can save for my family and my children.”
Celestino Rangel is CUFA Timor-Leste’s Credit Union Development Project Officer based in Remixo, “We have been working closely with the credit unions since 2012 by providing ongoing training like bookkeeping, conducting community skills audits, and providing financial cooperative education, financial literacy, saving mobilization, savings products, loan products and leadership skills,” he explained.
Since its inception, the CUD project has seen a mammoth 86% increase in savings and 31% increase in credit union membership. “We are so proud to see how our contribution can make a big change to the community” Celestino added.
The members are not only coming in to save; they are also understanding that they can access loans to fulfill vital needs, like starting a small business, building a better house or to purchase a new bike for their family.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. CUFA’s Timor-Leste field staff don’t deny that they have faced many challenges and problems during the three-year project, especially on finding new ways to work closely with the heart of community, and to reach the more marginalized groups like women and people with a disability.
Manuel da Costa, CUFA’s Project Officer based in Maubisse said “My local officers and I are also providing financial counselling from door to door and at the market, and we noticed that we have an increased number of members who ask to open savings accounts. We understand that women and disabled people are playing an important role in the community and they must receive the same level of opportunity as other people.”
His project and local officers have connected with more women and disabled persons by providing door to door financial services and encouraging them to join the credit union.”
His sentiments are echoed by Bonifacio Tome Tavares, CUFA’s Project Officer based in Letefeho :“It’s difficult for people with disabilities to have a chance to join any community activities, so we have provided the opportunity and encouraged them to join our credit union. We now have 205 females and 2 disabled people over three sub?districts we work.”
He likened it to learning to walk: “You have to take the steps yourself, knowing that there’s absolutely a helping hand behind you until you’re strong enough to stand.”
Ratha Ra, Regional Project Support Team Coordinator, CUFA