Savings groups: Building a movement

By Chris Hufstader
A savings group in southern Mali holds a weekly meeting, where members make savings deposits, pay back loans, and borrow group funds for urgent needs and business opportunities. Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America.

What will it take to get 50 million people into village savings groups by 2020? Oxfam America and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are sponsoring the SG 2013 Savings Groups Conference in Washington, DC, March 4-5, 2013, to propose ways of building a movement to promote small savings groups as a means to development.

Savings groups –15 to 25 people, usually women, who combine their own modest weekly savings into a group fund—are an essential means to bring financial services to the poorest communities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, says Sophie Romana, Oxfam’s deputy director in the Community Finance department. “Savings groups promote financial inclusion; they help poor, remote communities with no access to banks to save, borrow, and invest.” Savings groups leverage their own funds, rather than relying on credit from banks and other microfinance institutions, which usually do not serve the poorest of the poor.

There are now more than six million members of saving groups in 60 countries. Oxfam America’s Saving for Change program, started in 2007, helped establish more than 27,000 groups now serving 576,000 members.

The conference will focus on promoting savings groups, and participants will discuss ways to integrate savings groups into more formal financial systems, to help small businesses access larger loans as they grow, and how mobile technology can play a role in this process.

Participants will also discuss another important aspect of savings groups: They are, as Romana puts it, “highly efficient platforms” for business training, public health promotion, and other activities designed to increase well-being and reduce poverty. “Savings group members retain what they learn and always demand more,” Romana says. “We want big organizations to ally with those working with savings groups, so they can train group members in things like family planning, and other subjects that will help women in particular, since most saving group members are women and we can see when countries invest in women, their economies do better.”

Research findings

Oxfam America, Freedom from Hunger, Catholic Relief Services, and the International Rescue Committee are sharing the results of their randomized controlled trials at the conference. Kathleen Odell, an assistant professor of economics at Dominican University will lead the session on research. “The results will show that savings groups are having a positive impact on members and their families,” Romana says.

Other notable speakers and conference advisory committee members include:

  • Candace Nelson, editor of Savings Groups at the Frontier and an advisor to the SEEP Network
  • Guy Vanmeenen, Catholic Relief Service’s Advisor for Microfinance in Africa
  • Jason Wolfe, Senior Household Economic Strengthening Advisor, USAID
  • Joanna Ledgerwood, Access to Finance program, Aga Khan Foundation
  • Kathleen Stack, Vice President, Freedom from Hunger
  • Jeff Ashe, Director of Community Finance, Oxfam America
  • Maude Massu, Senior Microfinance Advisor, CARE International
  • Michaela Kelly, Head of Program Delivery Unit, Plan International
  • Prabhat Labh, Program Manager-Microfinance, MasterCard Foundation
  • Salah Goss, Program Officer, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Lauren Hendricks, Executive Director, CARE USA Access Africa initiative
  • Nisha Singh, Director of the Financial Services Community of Practice

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