Boosting Financial Education in Bhutan

An innovative partnership between an Australian CEO and Bhutanese credit unions is helping rural people grow and thrive.

When a tiny, remote nation that’s been cut off from the world for centuries opens its borders to commerce and trade, it’s likely to need some help from global neighbours. Bhutan – the Himalayan kingdom most well-known for its philosophy of gross national happiness – first connected with the outside world less than 40 years ago. Most people in the developing country depend on agriculture to generate an income, which isn’t always easy in an increasingly globalised world.

Kevin Dupé, CEO of Community Mutual Group and 2014 Mutual Executive of the Year, saw an opportunity to use his skills in banking and finance to help communities in Bhutan access microfinance through the formation of cooperatives and credit cooperatives. And, importantly, along the way he helped to increase the country’s gross national happiness.

On the ground in Bhutan

After Kevin organised several of Bhutan’s brightest business minds to fly to Australia for a series of workshops, the country’s government invited him to travel to Bhutan to work on establishing a credit cooperative sector. A group of Australian credit unions and mutual banks established a fund to assist the Bhutanese officials with their travel costs.

As part of the initiative, Kevin worked with government officials and local communities to establish five small credit unions. These range from a women’s cooperative that lends to low-income women to help them establish street stalls, to a credit union that’s working to develop the buckwheat export market into India, and a cooperative that funds the production of organic honey.

Kevin says his volunteering contribution involved both high level and grassroots responsibilities, from liaising with senior levels of government to sharing practical skills with communities.

“Some of it was philosophical, some of it was basic balance sheet management and capital management, and some of it was just the logistics of member engagement and how they could grow their customer base,” says Kevin.

“There were also lots of workshops. With the women’s cooperative, for example, we talked about pricing and workshopped how to run balance sheets and grow capital. I talked about net interest margins because I thought their pricing was wrong. They weren’t really building a capital base – they were giving it away.”

How the initiative makes a difference

Kevin says his work is part of a long-term project funded by a group of Australian credit unions and mutual banks that aims to empower rural communities with basic wealth accumulation strategies.

“We’re helping to stabilise rural life and increase the possibility of villages surviving into the future and the youth being able to stay and be engaged. Hopefully people won’t drift into the capital city because we know that not everyone can get jobs there.”

“Something like 90 per cent of the Bhutanese population is dependent on subsistence agriculture so our goal was to try to harness the ability of those communities to increase their wealth through cooperatives – simple savings and loans functions – so that they could improve their lives and businesses,” he says.

“In economic terms it’s compelling to support that focus on self-help through cooperatives because so many of the people are dependent on agriculture, so our resources can go a long way.”

Social responsibility with a global perspective

Kevin says the opportunity to share his skills and work abroad has given him a stronger global perspective and greater realisation of the importance of having a social conscience.

“It has refreshed my philosophy and also given me insight into people who are really in touch with what’s important in life,” he says. “It just showed the power of these credit unions and mutual banks to help others in countries like Bhutan. It’s so worthwhile even though we have a lot to do at home.”

And his advice to other professionals looking to offer their skills to developing countries and volunteer overseas? “Try to build networks and find mentors,” he says. “There are some really good people out there volunteering who’ve had big careers and are now giving back.”

Kevin’s professional practise has been informed by the NGS Super Mutual Executive of the Year award – he used the $15,000 grant to study at INSEAD college in Fontainebleau, France. He studied how to create uncontested market space, and his ideas included focussing on ethical banking for regional areas.

Want to share your skills by volunteering overseas?

For more information on working with local communities abroad, check out Working Abroad, Australian Volunteers International and Australian Volunteers for International Development.

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