A Wee Bit of Perspective, In Case You've Lost Yours

It isn't very often you meet someone whose name is currently on a list of people the Taliban is seeking to kill.

And yet one such person stood in front of a large group of people last week and in a strangely, eerily upbeat and enthusiastic presentation shared the story of his work and that of credit unions in Afghanistan. As one person told me afterward, "Talk about putting things in perspective."

And by the way, make sure you don't add any sorts of prefixes such as "war-torn." Or "embattled." Or any other adjective that might suggest the country is in turmoil. Mahir Momand will have none of it.

Momand is CEO of Islamic Investment and Financial Cooperatives Group (IIFC Group), the combination trade association/regulator/life-and-death negotiator/cheerleader/safety and security arm for the world's newest credit union movement, not to mention the first flag bearer during the opening ceremonies of the World Council of Credit Unions' World CU Conference last week in Glasgow, Scotland.

An Extraordinary Contrast
Almost certainly your mental picture of the average Afghan is of someone who hasn't laughed since childhood, who looks tired and has a bit, perhaps more, of fear in his or her eyes, who is prematurely aged. And yet Momand is none of that. He smiles more than a spokesperson for teeth-whitener. If there were an "Up With Afghanistan" music group, he'd be the lead. Give him 10 minutes and you're all but filling out the paperwork for a timeshare.

It's hard to exaggerate the contrast between Momand-who proudly pointed out he wears neither a turban or a beard-and every image you have of the country that has been home to U.S. soldiers fighting the Taliban for nearly a decade. Indeed, Momand actually questioned why people even associate Afghanistan with terrorism, and his attitude is so infectious that you almost buy the idea that the whole perception is just a media exaggeration.

That is, right up until he talks about the day-to-day realities of running credit unions in a country that has a long border not just with Pakistan, but Iran. Momand shared stories with his international audience of how CU employees hide flash drives of CU data inside automobile engine compartments, not because they fear a data breach, but instead because, should the Taliban stop the car and find the flash drive, they will conclude the person is working with their enemy. He talked of how the Taliban will stop people and look at their hands. If your hands are smooth you are either rich, in which case you can pay a ransom, or you work at a computer for the government, in which case you pay with something far more dear.

Momand said that at three different credit unions Taliban fighters showed up with plans to destroy the operations, but local villagers turned them away. And finally there is that Taliban hit list on which, he confided, his own name ominously appears. One other person on the same list has already been killed.

Think you juggle some logistics in your strategic planning? Momand has eight body guards, and moves back and forth between two cars.

Yet none of that darkens his outlook. Instead, he beams with triumph at the successes the IIFCs have had in a country few ever associate with any positive "success" (see related story).

World Council of Credit Union meetings can give the impression they are a junket, and for some, especially U.S. CUs that send their entire boards and who aren't really engaged in the international CU community in any meaningful way beyond swapping logo'd golf shirts, they are. But if you can set aside the locales and the hit on the T&E budget for a moment, there is no other meeting from which one can leave feeling almost refreshed, if not recharged.

As noted in this space just a few weeks ago, I spent 75 minutes at a Small CU Roundtable discussion in San Francisco recently as part of NAFCU's conference and left thinking I had heard more jolly optimism from He Who Must Not Be Named. It isn't just the likes of Mahir Momand who are inspirational. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of credit unions in Poland-which is the reason the World CU Conference will take place in Gdansk-and that country's CUs are the end-result of much more than just throwing $5 into a cigar box.

The Real Hallmark
You seldom see the hands of a clock moving, yet ironically, it's not because they move so slowly, but because they do so quickly. It was just a bit more than two decades ago that several men who would go on to become founders of Poland's credit union movement were in prison for having stood up to the then communist government. With time, heroism fades and is forgotten. Perhaps that is the real hallmark of success; the most hard-fought-for victories eventually join all those things taken for granted. It's time to take time to remember those things.

In Poland and Afghanistan, in Russia and in Iraq, people have and still are risking their very lives to found and grow credit unions, thanks to the small-minded idiots who seem to believe only in People Hurting People. It's worth keeping in mind the next time you hear a U.S. CEO say he or she isn't complaining to their regulator because they fear retribution.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujounal.com