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Transformation through savings groups
Steve Hochstetler Shirk
After four years as MCC Representatives in Mozambique, Steve and Cheryl Hochstetler Shirk, with their children Peter and Katie, moved to Goshen, Indiana, in August. Previously they spent nine and a half years in Russia and Ukraine as MCC Representatives there. Steve will continue working with MCC Mozambique through the end of 2010.
Mozambique is still one of the poorest countries on earth, even after 16 years of solid economic growth; but it is a place where I found it easy to be optimistic. People remember that war is terrible, and they want to build their lives and develop their country. Everyone speaks of developing the society and combating poverty, and I found government officials ready to cooperate with churches and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in development efforts.
We pioneered sand dam construction in Mozambique, to capture rainwater in dry regions; and are fostering conservation farming by poor smallholders. Combining those efforts, we are building a national program of water and food security (productive farming) with the Christian Council of Mozambique. We established a hand-powered community well drilling project, helped rural education efforts and helped churches combat HIV/AIDS.
However, something called “savings groups” is one of the most dynamic things we were involved in over the last two years, with amazing grassroots changes taking place. People ask, “Where was this money?! Where has this savings been!?” They wonder why they didn’t know about about this idea of saving earlier. Story after story keeps coming in of how people are empowered, and of how a culture of truth-telling, punctuality, openness, transparency, accountability and responsibility is being created.
A group of people who trust each other meet regularly to contribute to their own savings box. After accumulating a certain amount, they give out loans to members or others they trust, to be repaid with interest. They set aside money in a “social fund” that serves as an insurance pool for them. They make lots of internal rules and fine any member who violates them. They decide on the length of one “cycle”, usually 6-12 months, and then get back their savings, plus interest and money from fines. They have officers, keep detailed records, recount money in full during each meeting for full transparency and make decisions together.
They are their own bosses. The money comes from them, not from anywhere else. The discipline is internal, not imposed from outside. Some of them gather astonishing amounts of money in rural areas where everyone thought they were poor. When they divide up the funds at the end of a cycle, members have accumulated money to make larger purchases and investments they usually could not afford.
The savings group creates an important mechanism to help people manage their money. Few people have regular income, so they spend when they have money and don’t spend when they don’t. But seldom do they know how much they have earned or spent in a month. Cultural values of “sharing” make accumulating money difficult, and most districts of Mozambique have no banks of any kind – for saving or borrowing. Local money lenders charge up to 50% interest per month!
The top organizer tells us that the groups motivate people to get moving, because people think, “I’ve got a savings meeting coming up; I need to have something to put in.” So they get busy selling or making something, doing a job, “move here, mix there, get busy here...” (mexer aqui, mexer aí, mexer aqui). Whereas before, many people would sit around or “even be sleeping”, thinking that they are poor and don’t have a job and therefore can’t do much. One group of women collected around 4,000 meticals (then $135) in their first cycle. The second time around, the same women collected 41,700 meticals (about $1,400)!
The United Church of Christ in Mozambique learned of this from MCC staff in 2008, and in less than one year the Women’s Society trained and formed upwards of 70 groups in half of Mozambique’s provinces. They enter areas where they have interested churches, but emphasize that all people are welcome. Many of the groups contain people from multiple churches, no church at all or sometimes other faiths. In one place, the weekly meeting is before the church service, and now the service starts on time instead of routinely 90 minutes late. Group members pay fines for arriving late to savings meetings, and the new habit transferred.
In another, the savings group met after church, and group members who were not part of the church started coming to services, some became believers, and now people need to come to church early to get a seat. Another group bought footwear for dozens of orphaned children in the community, to protect their feet from the hot ground.
In yet another church where members seldom had even half a metical (2 cents US) to put in the offering, the 12 savings group members each contributed 50 meticals ($2 each) to buy church benches instead of sitting in the dust. “We promise,” they told the visiting head of the Women’s Society, whose husband formerly pastored this church, “you are going to see great changes here!”
Women are leading all of these efforts. MCC had suggested to the women’s society that not all group officers should be men, if the groups contained both men and women. The women then decided that men could not be in the leadership of a group (though they could be members), because in their culture it would stop the women from being able to say what they thought.
The president of the denomination told me that “We work for 20 and 30 years, with no result, and in just six months, this has revolutionized communities!” He went on to say, “This shows that we need to change our way of working with people, because it is leading to completely different results.” He said that earlier if he wanted to talk with someone in rural communities, they would look down or away and be reluctant to speak. Now people rise up and speak freely and openly, with dignity. We went on to talk about empowering people, transparency, shared decision-making and letting people make decisions about their own lives. He noted how savings groups are giving women dignity and confidence in communities, where so often they are overlooked and dismissed.
In this work we call “development,” we do not measure progress by how much we ourselves can do for others. Instead, success is when people discover more and more what they themselves can do, together.
- Steve Hochstetler Shirk