• October 14, 2009 3:56 PM
  • - General

Canadians and credit unions seeing Sri Lankans through trying times

OTTAWA, Oct. 14 /CNW Telbec/ - Canadian Ingrid Fischer has been a witness to history.

Sent to Colombo in 2006 by the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA), Ingrid drew upon her experiences in credit unions like the one she once managed in Fort St. John. B.C., to help ordinary people in Sri Lanka piece their lives back together amidst the backdrop of disaster and war. Five years later, the country is emerging from the disaster.

Sri Lanka's coastal cities and villages were hit hard by devastating tsunami waves on December 26, 2004, leaving 35,000 dead and over half a million homeless. A decades-long civil war, with its kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings hampered recovery efforts.

"It was an extraordinarily complex and difficult environment to work in," says Ms. Fischer, who is in Ottawa this week to celebrate Co-op Week and International Credit Union Day with her CCA colleagues.

"Twenty minutes of monstrous waves had washed lifetimes of effort away. There was little infrastructure in the country. The eastern and northern sections were no-go zones because of the conflict. And the country was overwhelmed by a second tsunami of international aid that couldn't be readily handled by government agencies. It was an extremely challenging environment."

As momentous as this assignment was for Fischer, she says seeing credit unions transform lives in Sri Lanka was like witnessing history repeat itself.

"Credit unions are seeing communities through times of hardship and disaster all over the world," she says. "Many of Canada's most successful credit unions were forged out of desperate needs in the Prairie dustbowl of the 1930s. And they are there for the long term."

Fischer, 51, and her team harnessed the collective capacities of the CCA, the SANASA Development Bank, CCA's longstanding partner in Sri Lanka, and other donor organizations to re-build communities mobilizing credit union members to reconstruct their buildings and lost records, establish loans and training programs, create jobs and micro-businesses, and build homes, water and sanitary systems. It was dangerous work in remote, rural areas where checkpoints, curfews, landmines and violence were a constant threat.

"I worried about my staff and the staff of our partners," says Fischer. "They had to navigate between multiple warring factions to access ordinary people caught up in the conflict. This is dangerous work - not only for them, but also for their families and friends. Sometimes we had staff leave out of concern for the safety of themselves and their families. Sometimes, they lost family members who were random victims of violence. They were just on the same bus or train as a bomber."

The tsunami no longer dominates the news headlines. The war is over and the world has moved on to other events in other places. But the work continues. Many of the 250,000 now in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps are also tsunami survivors. The Canadian Co-operative Association with funding from the Canadian Red Cross, credit unions and individual Canadians continues to work with SANASA - bringing services to recovering communities and into refugee camps in war torn northern areas of the country. This too will be slow, difficult work.

As Fischer packs her bags for another overseas assignment in another distant place - this time in Uganda - she will leave behind her most valuable possession - four years of effort helping ordinary people to re-build their lives.

The Canadian Co-operative Association is a national association for co-operatives in Canada, representing more than nine million co-operative and credit union members from over 2,000 organizations. CCA members come from many sectors of the economy, including finance, insurance, agri-food and supply, wholesale and retail, housing, health and the service sector. CCA provides leadership to promote, develop, and unite co-operatives and credit unions for the benefit of people in Canada and around the world.

For further information: To book an interview with Ingrid Fischer, or for more information about CCA's work in Sri Lanka, contact: David Shanks, Manager, Publications and Media Relations, International Development, The Canadian Co-operative Association, Tel: (613) 238-6711 ext. 207, Toll free: 1-866-266-7677 ext. 207, Email: David.Shanks@coopscanada.coop; Visit www.coopscanada.coop to listen to a podcast interview with Ingrid Fischer, to view videos of CCA's work in Sri Lanka, and to learn more about the Canadian Co-operative Association, Co-op Week in Canada (October 11-17) or International Credit Union Day (October 15)