Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran a story about the growing attention being given to microsavings. Here at Five Talents, we were delighted to see the story because it affirms the work we’ve been doing for years. It also communicates a powerful truth: that learning to save can transform one’s life – even in communities where women and men do not have access to traditional banks.
“There’s a common, misguided, knee-jerk reaction that if you’re poor, you have no assets to save,” Dean Karlan, a Yale economist, told the Post. “People who are poor obviously save less, but they still save.”
We’ve seen this for years in our Burundi program, which by June 30 will have helped more than 10,000 women and men join savings groups and build wealth where, previously, they had none. Other Five Talents programs – including ones in South Sudan, Myanmar and Bolivia – also feature the group-led savings model.
In the case of Five Talents, however, these savings “circles,” as the Post calls them, are far more than glorified piggy banks. They are microcosms of self-government and hubs for compassionate community involvement.
I saw this first-hand during my recent trip to Burundi.
Each group has a constitution (a list of rules) that is created and agreed upon by the members themselves. The rules cover everything from the number of women and men who may participate in a single group, to conditions regarding savings deposits and loan disbursement. Group members also determine their own interest rates and penalty fees.
This self-determination does wonders for members’ self-esteem, and it encourages discipline and order that members can then model in their individual homes.
Even more amazing, though, is what these groups are able to accomplish for others in their community. Most savings groups in Burundi create an emergency fund, which they will only tap when the group collectively identifies a needy individual in their community – often someone who is not even a part of their circle.
We need to keep in mind that the women and men in these groups have their own challenges to overcome – cobbling together a living by selling palm oil or growing a few vegetables; caring for a sick child; repairing a hole in the roof of their hut. Yet they are choosing to set aside a portion of their savings for others in their community.
One of the most powerful examples of this that surfaced during my trip came when a woman named Monica told us how a savings group had taken her under their wing.
She is a mother a four, and when a man carried away her eldest daughter, who was pregnant, a few group members went out and brought the young woman back to safety. Later, they also paid 5,000 Burundian francs (about $3) for the baby’s medical care and provided Monica with seeds for her subsistence farming when she could not afford them.
Even though Monica had not been saving through the group, the members counted her as one of their own. “I was not able to feed my kids,” she said, but because of the generosity of the savings group, “now I am able to send them to school.”
Through their compassionate actions, the group members have added another story of transformation to the expanding narrative of hope and community development that we are seeing in Burundi.
Microsavings isn’t just about money. It’s not just a piggy bank that women and men living in poverty can use to incrementally increase their wealth. Microsavings is empowering individuals. And it is contributing to the development and strengthening of entire communities in some of the world’s poorest regions.
I’m currently in Juba, South Sudan, and I want to share with you some of the amazing things I’m seeing and hearing from participants in our programs here.
As women in America, we can take so much for granted. We know how to count. We know how to read a street sign. Can you imagine what your life would be like if you could not do these basic things?
Yesterday, I was sitting in on a group meeting and watching as women wrote words like “chicken” in the dirt. The facilitator was drawing pictures, and the women were spelling out words that identified those crude drawings.
This may seem like a small accomplishment, but when a woman learns to count, read, write and save money, something shifts in the foundation of her household: The woman gains a voice, and the husband is forced to begin listening.
One man told me of the changes that have taken place in his own home since his wife has begun participating in the financial literacy and savings program we’ve established with our local partners.
“I want to sell a goat to buy some nails for building, but she [my wife] has to agree first,” he said, adding, “Now you have to ask your wife even if you want to sell a chicken!”
What a testimony to the transformation that is taking place in households and communities all over South Sudan!
When a woman can read, write and count, she can know where she is going on the road. She can write her own name. She can follow directions on medicine packages. She can weigh in on financial decisions.
And she can learn how to save money and run very small businesses.
Ringing in my ear are the words of joy and hope from women with whom I have spoken.
“I can read a sign now, so I know where I am going.”
“I can write my own name.”
“You have brought us love and understanding at the same time.”
As one man told me, “Change has come to the community.” I can’t wait to see more of this transformation in the coming days.
Photo: A member of a savings group outside of Juba. This woman runs a small variety shop.
Show me the right path, O Lord;
Point out the road for me to follow.
-Psalm 25:4 NLT
How many of you have learned more about a road by traveling down it rather than by consulting a map? As many of us jump in the car with the family and head out for our annual summer adventure, are we willing to take a new route or do we need to know exactly where we are going first?
Here at Five Talents, there are so many great things happening that we are reminded to pray for guidance and wisdom from the One who can show us the way. Just a month ago we started out our fiscal year and it certainly is lining up to be the best year in our history.
There are so many great things to tell you about…where do I start? How about with the Business as Mission (BAM) team that just came back from Myanmar? They certainly took the “road less traveled” out to Myanmar, one of the remaining relatively unspoiled countries on earth. There isn’t a great deal of infrastructure there yet but things are changing quickly. Hope is in the air! Our BAM team successfully trained a number of trainers who are now able to go out and train micro-entrepreneurs.
This embodies the concept of “paying it forward” and is what our organization is all about. The value of a curriculum that has been adapted to the context and culture is worth its weight in gold. As a result of their efforts, many clients and beneficiaries will be better prepared to follow the path put in front of them as they open up small businesses.
As for things happening closer to home, our Five Talents family is in the process of interviewing candidates for the position of Development Associate. This person will help build on the excellent foundation now in place so we can reach more and more donors with the great stories of what we are doing here. I dare to say there is no other organization out there that does what we do in the places that we do it with such total excellence, care, and efficiency. We hope to be able to reach 40% more clients this year. I love thinking about where that particular path will lead us.
For all of us, whether we walk the old dirt paths or we blaze new trails, friends remain important. Our organization could not exist without the solid support of you, our friends and donors. Even though there is a great deal of uncertainty out there regarding the economy, we have been truly blessed by your generosity.
Many of you have decided to walk alongside us and set up monthly pledges. Whether you’ve decided to give us $25, $50 or $100 a month, the fact is that each dollar here makes a difference in someone’s life. In Myanmar, even a loan as low as $20 has the ability to transform the trajectory of an individual’s life.
Throughout this fiscal year and well into the future, may the Lord continue to show Five Talents, its beneficiaries and its donors, the path that leads towards transformation.
I wish you could have been sitting beside me last month during a meeting I attended in Uganda with our program directors from Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Here we were – under one roof, on plastic chairs, opening our sessions together in songs like “Amazing Grace”, and sharing stories about the challenges of serving some of the poorest families in the world.
Five Talents has been working in risky, war-torn, and rural areas for more than 12 years. We are experts in the area of setting up savings groups, distributing loan capital, and equipping women and men who run survival businesses for long-term success.
But during this meeting, the realities of what we are up against hit home again and again.
Francine, the representative from Burundi, where the per capita income is $89, talked about the challenge of teaching women to count for the first time. Without imparting a basic level of financial literacy, we have no hope of empowering these adult women to use effectively the gifts and resources God has given them. For those women, it truly all begins with 1, 2, 3.
Harun, our program manager in South Sudan, talked about the difficulty of helping group members overcome the country’s poisonous history of civil war and tribal violence. All of the education in the world can do little to trigger change without accompanying it with messages about the importance of hope and reconciliation.
I remember one moment when Harun was talking about our work in a particularly rural community. Five Talents is the only organization in the area and, as a result, the women and men are looking to us for help. He said, “If we don’t do [the work of setting up savings groups and helping survival business owners set up sustainable enterprises], then it doesn’t get done.”
Other challenges mentioned by program leaders were more typical of all microfinance programs — things like the handling and safeguarding of cash, avoiding over-indebtedness, and meeting community demand while not over-extending the program.
But in the midst of these reports, something remarkable happened.
When each program manager shared a challenge, another person from another country rose and responded by sharing his or her own best practice. We had Ugandans solving problems from Kenya, and Burundians suggesting to the Tanzanians a new way of approaching the challenges they face. Indeed it was, as the author of Proverbs 27:17 put it, “iron sharpening iron.”
Every single person walked out of the sessions sharper and full of more wisdom as a result of all of the learning that was taking place.
Listening to our colleagues discuss those realities over those few days, I was reminded of the risks and rewards of what we do and where we work. I thought back to the Parable of the Five Talents, in Matthew 25, where the servant who took a risk to double his talents was rewarded and told, “Well done, now be my partner” (The Message version).
Being a partner is a serious proposition. I thought again about the rewards and how worthy they were: giving women a way to contribute to their family’s prosperity, teaching a savings group how to balance a simple budget, empowering a survival business owner to invest and then steward a new round of profits.
These are rewards that will give back to those women for generations to come.
In fact, they trickle down into the extended family unit, to children, uncles and aunts, sisters and brothers. And these rewards make all of the challenges that we face worth the trouble — and worth your continued investment in our mission.
Thank you for investing in the lives and hearts of the micro-entrepreneurs of this world. You are the catalyst for the change taking place half a world away. Great things are indeed happening.