Saving for Change helps communities in Cambodia address financial difficulty

By Soleak Seang
Sean Ing, in the middle, waits with members of the Bantoat Bos Prosperity savings group for the leader to announce the size of the group's fund. Photo: Coco McCabe

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When Sean Ing first heard of Saving for Change, she hesitated to join, but decided to listen. Ing had a big expense coming up—her daughter’s wedding. But she wasn’t sure how to fund it.

“First I decided to just listen to what the trainer had to say about saving money. Then it got more interesting, and I thought I would want to give it a try,” Ing said in her local Cambodian dialect.

Ing became more interested in the Saving for Change program after learning that many of its members can access loans not only to solve short-term needs for credit, but also to expand their income sources such as by raising livestock or growing vegetables to support their families. She later joined a Saving for Change group to help her address her family’s financial difficulty.

Oxfam introduced its Saving for Change program to Ing’s village of Bantoat Bos, some 400 km from the Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, in 2009. The program shows rural poor communities how to save their money as a group and then make small, but important loans to each other. The members of .Ing’s group act as their own community bank—they save, lend, and pay each other interest. This approach has helped Ing and thousands of other Cambodian families to reduce dependency on credit providers, moneylenders, and intermediaries who would demand collateral like land titles and charge high interest. Now Ing, who did not have access to banking services, gets a safe place to save, easier access to loans, and interest that grows her group fund.

Five men and five women in Ing’s village started this Saving for Change group in mid January 2010. With the support of a trainer, they have established group rules, selected group leaders, and named their group Bantoat Bos Prosperity. This group meets and saves three times a month, and members can borrow money at the second meeting of every month. When the group meets, each member puts from 5,000 riels ($1.20) to 15,000 riels ($ 3.60) as savings into the group’s savings box.

A savings circle

“Let’s start our meeting,” the group leader announced at the beginning of a recent session. Gathered under the shade of some banana, coconut and mango trees. all 10 members of Bantoat Bos Prosperity including Sean Ing sat in a circle on a blue plastic sheet,

As the secretary checked the group’s saving and borrowing records, the financier pulled a savings box out onto the plastic sheet. She unlocked to open it, counted the money inside an envelope, and said, “Our group has saved 305,000 riels. Last month we lent 300,000 riels to Sean Ing. So, we now have 5,000 riels ($1.20 dollars) left in the box.”

Ing was the first member in Bantoat Bos Prosperity to have benefited from the group’s savings. She said she would use the money to prepare meals—buying chickens, pigs, and vegetables—for her daughter’s wedding.

According to the group’s rules, Ing will pay 2 percent interest per month, and she has three months to pay back the loan. That will give her enough time to harvest and sell her dry- season rice–and use the proceeds to pay off her loan.

When it was time to discuss savings, the group leader asked each of the Bantoat Bos Prosperity members how much they wanted to save. Everyone at the meeting had some money to save. Ing put 10,000 riels ($2.50) and an additional 6,000 riels to cover the interest on her loan.

The financier summed up the amount and cross-checked with the records before putting all the money back into the savings box. Ing looked at the box and joked, “When will the box be full? Maybe next year?” Everybody laughed.

Small savings, big changes

People in Ing’s village depend heavily on rain-fed agriculture. Many of them are living in poverty, and when you ask them if they want to join Saving for Change, you would expect this phrase: “I can’t save because I don’t even have enough for my daily expenses.”

However, Ing and countless others are proof that even the poorest people can save. Their savings may be tiny, but they add up over time, and in return, can help them overcome financial difficulty.

Now Bantoat Bos Prosperity members have better access not only to financial resources but also to basic skills in how to manage those resources.

Ing has also seen an improvement in the relationships among Bantoat Bos Prosperity members. “We spend from 30 minutes to an hour in each meeting, and I feel closer to them than before,” Ing said. “I think my savings group can help me in the future when my family needs financial assistance.”

In Cambodia, the Saving for Change program has been helping people in Banteay Meanchey and Preh Vihear provinces to work their own way out of poverty. Oxfam America launched the program in Mali in 2005. Today, it has spread to three other countries—Senegal, El Salvador, and Cambodia-- and is reaching 351,000 families who have mobilized savings of more than $6 million.

Working with local organizations in Cambodia such as RACHA and Save Cambodia Wildlife, Oxfam America has formed Saving for Change groups for 41,000 people—about 80 percent of them are female. The organization expects to reach 91,000 Cambodians in the next three years.