Savings Clubs in Dhaka

I came across this article in Philanthropy Age – a printed and online quarterly magazine considered to be the leading source of philanthropic news, views, trends, and analysis for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

The interview is with Stuart Rutherford who is based in Dhaka.  I liked his conclusions on microfinance – not everyone wants to run a business.  I have seen Savings Clubs in action before and for those not wanting to be entrepreneurs, it’s  a smart approach to making money available to families when it is most needed.  It also improves financial literacy which can only be a good thing.

Article commences now.

Photo credit: BRAC-Shehzad-Noorani

Photo credit: BRAC-Shehzad-Noorani

Stuart Rutherford founded SafeSave in 1996, to provide basic banking services in the slums of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. Nearly two decades on, the company serves 19,000 clients, helping them afford everyday expenses and budget for bigger life events. He tells us why financial services matter for the world’s poorest – and for the push to eradicate poverty.

Why is financial inclusion so critical for the poor?

The financial lives of poor people are no different from those of the rich. You need the means to feed your family every day and the ability to budget for big expenditures, such as weddings, children’s education and building a home. But if you’re poor, your income is small and unreliable. The main barrier is to do with economic lives. If you’re poor, you don’t have a regular income and the banks aren’t interested in doing business with you. None of your financial life is automated; you live in a world of do-it-yourself finance. Each week, you must remember to put money aside, or repay debt.

To what extent did microfinance help the unbanked?

For a long time the Grameen Bank [set up by Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh] and its mode of microcredit seemed to be working extremely well. But there was a founding myth of microcredit: that every poor person is inherently capable of taking and repaying loans, and of putting all the loan into a business, which would then grow and lift them out of poverty. If you believe that myth, then the best thing to do is to get as many loans out to poor people as possible.

In some cases, that led to too much debt. In southern India in 2010, vast numbers of microfinance organisations sprung up, tapped the financial markets and gave multiple loans to poor villagers. Suddenly there were 10 microfinance firms lining up on villagers’ doorsteps offering $50 or $100 loans. A lot of people got into over-indebtedness.

But – again – the poor are no different from the rich. Only a minority of people in the west have the desire and willingness to start and run a business. Most people want a job, with a salary and a regular income.

We need to place a much bigger emphasis on understanding the economic and financial lives of poor people. The World Bank’s Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), for example, has shifted its stance and is much more interested in understanding real customer needs – for savings, insurance, pensions, the need to be careful when you lend. The criticisms of microfinance were just. But things have got better since.

Where do savings fit in to microfinance?

There is a general prejudice that poor people can’t save money – that they need fresh money coming in, not money going out. But if you look at their behaviour, you find most poor households have some informal mechanism to save. The most common way is at home, hiding money under the mattress or sewing it into clothes. Or, you give the money to someone you trust – a money-guard. The third way is through savings clubs, where neighbours pool their savings to produce the sums of money they need.

The problem is that not only does this approach forgo interest; it loses money. In southern India and western Africa, one of the most common ways to save is with a deposit collector, a person from the community who goes around each day and collects small amount of savings. When a good amount is built up, she gives it back to them, less a bit to pay her. You lose on the deal, but people regard the few dollars they pay as a good price for the security.

What impact can savings have on poverty?

SafeSave lends and takes savings. On the lending side, we charge borrowers 2.25 per cent per month on their loans, and on the savings side we pay between 5 and 8 per cent a year. We provide a daily service to collect deposits from each household. Today, in Dhaka, SafeSave has eight branches in slum areas reaching 19,000 clients. On average people put away 600 taka per month ($7.50).

Savings can make a lasting difference. In Bangladesh a couple of weeks ago, I met a young woman who had previously had a miscarriage, and a child die just after birth. She was determined her next child would have better chance so she opened one of our long-term savings accounts, expressly to set money aside for childbirth. I learned a few weeks ago she took the money out of the account and spent it on a good hospital, getting good treatment, and her child is doing well.

SafeSave became part of the Bangladesh-based NGO Brac two years ago. It currently has $1.5m in savings on its balance sheet and $1.1m in outstanding loans. In other words, poor people are using SafeSave much more to save than to borrow.

How can we increase access to financial services for poor people?

Commercial banks are profit-making organisations with big overheads. It isn’t that big banks should get involved in financial services for the poor, but rather there are other things formal banks can do, such as lend money to nonprofit microfinance organisations. And as technology improves, there are opportunities such as within mobile money, where big banks can get involved on a profit-making basis.

While we’ve made progress on access to credit and savings, poor people still lack insurance and pensions – these two are where we still have an awful lot of work to do. I think the impact outsiders can have will come through more direct interventions, the kind of work the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation does, or that we’d see if a big bank became involved with mobile money. The breakthroughs are going to come from that.

About Kate Coffey

After 30 or so years in the investment management industry, 2013 saw me turn my life up-side-down, making my way first to Nepal, then Bangladesh during that first ‘year away’. The year took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and its people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located in Bhainsepati - 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Saanga foothills. Since 2014, I have returned to SIRC numerous times, working closely with the folks there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. In Bangladesh I marvelled at the strength and resilience of marginalized women who have the courage and audacity to break the rules and make a better life for themselves and their children through microfinance programs with BRAC. 2016-2017 saw me embark on a totally new experience in Sri Lanka, a place I never would have chosen to end up in. It’s the 40C+ heat, big humidity and tropical snakes & animals that scared me! But I ended up love love loving! my time there, working with predominantly Tamil small business owners in remote villages in north and east of the country, trying their best to recover their businesses and the lives of their employees, after decades of a civil war. My time in Sri Lanka made me realize my hard-earned business skills and experience can really be put to good use! The work the BIZ+ team and I did there ended up earning me International Volunteer of the Year Award in December 2017, presented on Capitol Hill, Washington DC no less. I am currently home on Bowen Island, in the west coast of Canada, shoring up my finances before I head off to who knows where, for my next expert volunteer assignment. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2013-2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
This entry was posted in Bangladesh and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s