Tuesday, September 09, 2008

How do good practices spread and become transformative?

The massiveness of poverty in the world is daunting – 3 billion people or 50% of the world population lives on less than $2.50 a day! Most international development, with high overhead due to involvement of western staff, does not begin to make a dent in these statistics.

Jeff Ashe, Manager of Community Finance at Oxfam, knows there is another way: build the capacity of local women to self-organize and then encourage them to share those self-organizing strategies with surrounding communities.

Let’s unpack this into its 3 parts:

1. First, local animators are hired who go into villages and set up a Women’s Savings Group. The 20 women in each group put a tiny amount of money into a common pot each week, then lend out that total to one woman to buy assets – such as a goat or chickens – that she uses to generate more income for her family. No bank (with all the attendant overhead) holds or tracks the money. Instead, the women are taught a simple memory system to calculate interest and repayments. Gradually, the women in the group move their families out of poverty.

2. The second stage makes the project viral. From the beginning, the animators encourage women in the group to learn how to set up additional women’s savings groups, both in their village and in nearby villages. The women accomplish this with only modest “coaching” from the animators. This way each initial savings group can eventually generate 10 or 20 times the impact of the original animator at no cost.

3. The third stage is transformational. During this stage the culture of the village and region becomes one of self-organizing: the women in the groups begin to see other things they can change in their villages and begin to organize projects to make those changes. Oxfam is helping to catalyze this shift by encouraging savings groups to market malaria nets and develop ponds to capture water during the rainy season.

A critical piece of the success: animators engaged in deep reflection that generated several critical breakthroughs. The first occurred when animators, very early in the process, observed that some women were going off on their own and starting additional groups. This was reframed from a problem to an opportunity, and led to the viral strategy described in 2 above. The second was the development of an oral mnemonic record keeping system that enabled illiterate women to be involved in the project. This then morphed into a pictograph system that made it even easier for women to share the system with other women.

The result: In just 37 months the Savings for Change Project ramped up in Mali – the country in the world with the highest poverty rate – to include more than 95,000 women. With funding from the Gates Foundation, this number is rapidly accelerating, and 80% of the new groups will be formed by women from existing savings groups. A rigorous research component will track the impact of the program on poverty and social capital.

You can make donations to this great program here.

Tomorrow I’ll post on how we can apply this to our situations. Post your thoughts and I’ll incorporate them into the post!

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