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When Things Get Tough, Trust the Group

“When the Nation Gets a Cold, Black Business Gets Pneumonia”
April 13, 2020
Sparing Spazas
May 2, 2020

Photo credit: CRS

Marc Bavois believes deeply in the capabilities of people living in poverty to pool their own resources, invent solutions, and care for those who suffer most.  For more than a decade he has worked as a Technical Advisor with Catholic Relief Services CRS), helping them develop their innovative Savings and Internal Lending Communities (SILC).   During this time, he has also helped guide the global Savings Group community.  The Small Enterprise Education and Education Network (SEEP) awarded Marc one of its Practitioner of the Year Awards in 2018 for “having pioneered approaches and programming to expand the scale of Savings Groups and deepen their outreach among poorer populations.”

CRS has now reached over 4 million members in 183,000 SILC groups.  These groups of 15 to 25 people:

  • Create their own rules for how their group will operate
  • Meet regularly (weekly, fortnightly or monthly)
  • Save according to member capacity each time they meet
  • Donate to a common social fund to take are of emergencies
  • Approve loans to members for their small business activities
  • Make a “shareout” once a year where each person receives back their combined savings plus profit earned

Together, SILC members currently in their first cycle of operation have saved over $13 million and contributed over $1 million to their social funds.

Participation in SILC groups has grown exponentially through CRS’s innovative Private Service Provider (PSP) program.  CRS trains village social entrepreneurs in how to organize and train SILC groups.  The private service providers meet with a group under training for a year, then the group continues to operate on its own.  The groups pay the PSPs for their services.  In this way the program can continue to expand to the point of saturation, even after the project of supporting the PSPs has ended. To date CRS has trained and certified more than 5,000 PSPs.

Marc has also led CRS in extending the SILC groups to reach some of the most vulnerable members of society – widows and orphans from HIV/AIDS, those living with disabilities and youth.

You can learn more about the SILC and PSPs in this 7-minute video from CRS.

I interviewed Marc online while he was at home in Tanzania.  Unfortunately, technical difficulties did not allow us to conduct a video interview, so we had our discussion in the chat window.  In the interview Marc pointed out some of the challenges being faced by SILC members as a result of the COVID crisis:

  • Many countries are in lockdown, meaning groups cannot meet in full strength
  • Some group members would like to have their savings now to buy food, while others want to wait till the planting season starts in June
  • Meanwhile, many group members cannot repay their loans because they have no income from their businesses
  • PSPs cannot leave their villages to support their groups in surrounding areas

CRS has responded to these challenges by sending out training messages to the PSPs, along with recommendations on how groups can respond to the pandemic (see below).  In the interview you will see Marc’s core beliefs coming through.  This pandemic will bring unimagined challenges to Savings Groups, but the members will pool their knowledge and resources to come up with their own solutions.

Marc Bavois

Interview with Marc Bavois, Senior Technical Advisor, Catholic Relief Services

What countries are you operating in?  How many of those are on lockdown?

CRS has SILC programming in about 40 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia.  We don’t have an exact count on the number on lockdown, as that changes rapidly, and varies within countries

What is CRS doing for Savings Group members in response to the pandemic?

We developed recommendations for the SILC groups which we are pushing out through projects and agents. The main point is that every group should make a plan, choosing between suspending operations, sharing out as quickly as possible, or continuing with modified sanitary procedures, but being ready to change at a moment’s notice.   In some cases, groups have already suspended activities, or government restrictions make it impossible for the whole group to meet and discuss these recommendations.  Increasingly there are caps on gathering size.

We pushed out uniform information as quickly as we could, now we are measuring how far it’s getting (dissemination to active projects and mature groups).

I imagine getting to mature groups is a challenge …

Our approach to reaching mature groups is through the Private Service Providers (PSPs) (independent group trainers) some of whom are organized in peer networks but unless they reach further out by phone to groups, it can be challenging since each PSP covers several villages and some village leaders are discouraging them from traveling to meet up with groups (Senegal).

What do you hear about the impact of the virus and lockdowns on clients?

We haven’t had a lot of information to date, but anecdotally some groups that want to share out to meet immediate spending needs are challenged by the fact that members can’t repay their loans because economic activity is down.  We’re sending out guidance on how to do shareouts with available cash, and without full attendance (in case there are restrictions on the number of attendees, or in case there are elderly members who are advised to not come to meetings).

 In the Sahel, many groups time their shareout for the planting season (~June) so there is tension between sharing out now and holding out until then and concerns that restrictions on gathering (e.g. Senegal) will make that more difficult.

What role are PSPs playing in getting out correct information about the virus?

The PSPs are the ones getting information to groups.   CRS doesn’t go directly to groups, so we sent the written guidelines and graphics to all our country programs, who are translating as needed and sending to PSPs mainly by phone.

Are any of the groups able to meet/pay out digitally?

We encourage those who can to do so, but it’s very few, and mainly in East Africa and urban areas.

We don’t have numbers back up from the field yet – we want to balance the demands we put on staff who are challenged with keeping up work, while needing to work from home, etc.

This sounds like its hitting Savings Groups pretty hard …

I think it might have a profound effect.  Unlike credit groups where arguably meetings are for the convenience of the FSP (while recognizing there are benefits to the members of belonging to the group), with SGs in-person meetings are key to the methodology.

And usually the benefit of the group is that, when some are down, others are up.  Now everyone is down at the same time.

There is definitely a limit to how much small groups can do if every member is affected in the same way, and all the more if they aren’t able to meet as they usually do.

Is there talk of using the groups as distribution systems for relief funds/supplies?

We haven’t experienced that yet.  CRS has many projects that target participants on the basis of vulnerability (OVC caretakers, chronically food insecure, etc.) and has well-established systems for distribution (and protocols have been modified for distribution, in line with WFP recommendations). Those will probably be increased but SGs won’t necessarily be a main channel.

It seems like there will be several challenges.  Members may be afraid to meet in groups.  Those with savings will want their money out, and those with loans won’t be able to repay for a long time

That’s why we find it very important for every group to make a decision for itself, rather than have one blanket recommendation, and to reach groups while we still can, so they can still decide democratically what to do.

Our 3rd recommended option is to modify meeting procedures if groups want to continue. that will be our starting point, and of course any learning we gather now (and conversations with peers) will be starting point — and that’s for groups that already ‘know what to do’.  Unclear yet what this is all means for group formation and training, when it’s critically important to have full attendance for capacity-building, transparency, social capital development.  There will be an even-bigger emphasis on digital transactions, virtual meetings, etc.  than currently.

Good point.  They are all facing the same challenge, they have learned how to work together. Are you hearing any stories of adaptation/resilience from groups?

Groups in Latin America (where tech is more ubiquitous) are doing a lot on WhatsApp to avoid in-person meeting.  In some cases they are continuing to save individually at home with the intent of depositing the money when meetings can resume. 

My experience has been that one of the essential survival tools of people living in poverty is solidarity – banding together and sharing knowledge and resources.  Now this pandemic seems to be severely hampering their ability to do that.


On the other hand, I am always amazed at the creativity and resilience of people with very little.  I think we will end up learning a lot from them at this time.  Have you seen any government responses to the pandemic that take Savings Groups into account?

So far no, I haven’t seen that.  At the local level, we would like authorities to permit groups to meet (sanitarily) to share out and take a break.

How would you like to see the international community respond to the needs faced by SGs at this time?

It’s a small ask, but one that seems more pressing than ever: make it easier for SGs to operate joint bank accounts and joint MM accounts, in the interest of facilitating safe and transparent distance transactions

Thanks, Marc.  I appreciate you taking the time to type things out.  You really helped me understand the situation for SGs.  My prayers are with you and all your members.

Thanks, and keep up the good work! Good talking with you.

Photo credit: CRS

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