The Path to Financial Inclusion Must Include Saving in Small Groups
When the latest edition of the Global Findex Database arrived, I pored over the tables and graphs. I was not surprised to see that institutional financial inclusion – a bank account, a loan from a financial institution or using fintech - was growing. But this statistic caught my eye: in developing countries, while 42 percent of adults saved over the past year, 2.9 billion (52 percent) did not save at all. Without savings, the poor, and especially the poorest, face only bad choices – go hungry, take children out of school, delay urgent medical care, or turn to a family member who is probably as strapped as they are.
Savings are vital for people’s financial health, so these are the numbers we must pay attention to. To turn this statistic around, At Grassroots Finance Action, we propose a re-envisioning of how to serve the poorest, not through financial institutions but by building on the capacity of small informal groups to direct their own development.
Why I believe in the power of informal savings
After two decades promoting Savings Groups in some of the poorest villages in the world, I appreciate how savings can put food on the table or launch a business to support a family. My transformation from microfinance believer, who designed, launched and evaluated MFIs in 34 countries, to informal savings advocate began in Nepal.
As the evaluator of the Women’s Empowerment Program (WEP), my team and I spent weeks talking to village women about their groups, learning about how they saved, borrowed, launched community betterment projects and redistributed lending profits among the group members. A follow-up study on WEP carried out eight years after ours showed that two-thirds of these groups were still saving and lending, and the leaders of active groups had trained new ones, making up the difference. The amount they saved had quadrupled. And not a penny of external funding from financial institutions had gone to these groups.
The Nepal experience rewired my brain from credit to savings. I never looked back.
ROSCAs, Savings Groups and Self-Help Groups
As we seek to multiply the number of people saving in informal groups, much of the groundwork is already in place. According to Global Findex Database 2021, 419 million adults save “semi-formally” in small groups - three times the 140 million borrowers of MFIs. Most semi-formal savers are members of different types of informal groups that help their members save and manage their finances, such as Rotating Savings and Credit Groups (ROSCAs), Savings Groups or Self-Help Groups.
In ROSCAs, group members contribute a fixed amount each week to the group fund, and each week the total collected is paid out to a different member until all have received their payouts. ROSCAs are based on centuries-old traditions of disciplined savings, mutual accountability and support. They have helped the poor survive and sometimes even thrive for generations. While to an outsider these groups may appear simple, the strategies behind selecting the right members and ensuring they make their payments require creativity, flexibility, commitment and hard work.
Immigrants around the world often use the informal savings traditions from their home countries to finance their businesses, buy homes, cover daily needs and send money home. Immigrant ROSCAs are an important source for the over $600 billion in remittances sent last year to low- and middle-income countries, triple the amount spent worldwide on development assistance.
Besides ROSCAs, NGO-trained Savings Groups have grown into a 20-million-member movement. Savings Groups build on commonly understood ROSCA traditions, but add flexible savings and borrowing from the group’s fund. These groups abound in African villages and increasingly in Asia and Latin America. 80 percent of the group members are women. In my field experience, I have observed that Savings Groups do a better job of reaching the poorest than ROSCAs, whose members are often market vendors with a regular income. Recent research shows that savings groups save and borrow year after year, and even train new groups, with little to no outside support.
Then there are the 72 million members of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in India, many of whom have been trained by thousands of Indian NGOs since the 1990s. The SHG movement has not only given its members access to informal savings and credit, but has also provided a link to the Indian banking system through a government-supported bank linkage program.
Many launch and grow their businesses, expand their farms or travel to get a job. A woman I spoke to in Mali summed it up this way: “Now that we have food on the table and I own two goats, I don’t need to beg my relatives or my husband for a bit of money. Our life is much less stressful.”
Expanding the reach of informal savings groups
Consider that there are a million Savings Group leaders and 20 million ROSCA leaders worldwide. Who better positioned to train and support new groups in their own and nearby communities? They understand how to organize and manage a group, they are trusted, and they live in the community and know who is reliable. Plus, they are often passionate about helping their communities.
If they received a small stipend (a dollar or two a day), they would train many more groups. This kind of incentive could motivate leaders to organize and support new groups, giving them the chance to meet with others doing the same work, exchange experiences, set objectives and help each other.
We are currently testing this methodology in Guatemala, El Salvador and Malawi, and we have found that each of those receiving a stipend will, on average, train and support five new groups per year. These “Community Champions,” as we call them, are selected, trained, supported and monitored by tested local NGOs with strong outreach into local communities.
Taking this effort to scale, we calculate that every $20 million invested in this type of initiative would translate into a million members, most of them women, organized into 50,000 groups. By saving between $0.50 and $2 per week, the groups would collectively save, lend and distribute between $25 million and $100 million per year. Half or more would launch or grow their businesses and expand their subsistence farms.
It is also significant to note that these 50,000 groups would record and track 75 million transactions each year, a costly function that financial institutions would need to support if they were the ones administering these savings and loan accounts. Informal savings groups serve those that even the most socially oriented MFI can’t reach, as there is no money to be made on $100 loans and $1 saving deposits.
If we are serious about financially including the poorest at a scale that makes a difference, our mindset must evolve from “we have the answers,” to serving as catalysts of solutions based on the good ideas of those we hope to serve – such as the informal savings circles based on traditions that go back generations. Our motto at Grassroots Finance Action is that “They already have the answers, just ask.” Let’s start asking and see what we find out.