In Tajikistan it isn’t about the money saved or spent. It is about wealth and influence.
We explain to groups of women in southern Tajikistan’s Khatlon Province that they have money in their houses that they are indifferent to. We call it indifferent money. Simply it is the amount of money that is so small, it doesn’t buy anything. In the States this would be a penny, nickel, dime or quarter. In fact, in most places 25% of the numeraire is the threshold at which the smallest possible purchase can be made such as candy, candles, matches or a single onion.
Once we explain this concept to women it becomes clear to them that they can save 25 Dirhams or one-quarter of a Som (numeraire) each week. In a month they can have one Som. Still that is not much, only about 22 US cents. We then count out 20 one Som notes representing 20 friends. Then we hold the money up and say this is what you have if you get together with your friends. We then start piling 20 Som notes in front of the women. In less than three months, look, here is a 50 Som note and after five months here is a 100 Som note. These women have never seen this much money in one place at one time. They get joyfully excited when we tell them this kind of money not only can be theirs - it is already theirs. They just don’t know they have it.
At this point we end our instruction and answer questions. The answer to every question is, “YOU DECIDE.”
How many women should be in our group? You decide.
How often should we meet? You decide, but money likes to be counted and it is good to come together.
Who is in charge? You pick your President, you decide.
Who keeps the money safe? You decide.
How do we keep records? You decide.
How does a new person join? You decide.
What if somebody leaves? You decide.
What do we do with the money? You decide, but it is good to keep about 30% aside in case you or a child needs a doctor or medicine – but it is up to you.
Can we lend the money? You decide.
Can we give it away? You decide.
How much should we save? You decide, but it should be small enough for every member to afford every month.
Now the women are really animated. They see the money. They know they can accumulate vast sums of it. They just have to figure out what to do to get it all gathered up. We ask them to talk it over. We advise them to meet several times and form as many groups as they want. For the first time in their lives they have to make all the decisions. We resist telling them or instructing them. Our animators are warned that this is not “Big Daddy Development.” The whole point is to use the decision making process to help women find their power.
If Save the Children staff make a follow up visit, the group has a 70% chance of being fully functional after six months. If we make three or more visits, there is a more than 98% group survival rate. During follow up visits we tell stories of other successful women’s groups. We help deflect the interference from mothers in law who are suspicious of the program. Usually they end up entering the group or forming their own. Men are less of a problem. They are relieved their wives are no longer coming to them for money – money they often had to borrow.
What do these women do? Anything they want. They pay for weddings, medical expenses, school uniforms, school books, food, seeds, a few of the more than 180 we’ve organized have their own stores. Most make one or two day interest free loans to members short on cash. Nearly all register births and get their members national ID cards. Some lend at interest to the men. In one town 12 groups formed according to street. Each street had its own group. They then elected one woman, Jamilla, to lead the 12 group leaders. The groups have their own activities, but they also come together for group projects.
Their first combined project was this: There was a polio outbreak about five months after they organized. Health teams were stressing the need for a cold chain. The local department of health had been promising a refrigerator for the town clinic for more than two years. Each women’s group contributed a fixed sum and the 12 group leaders and Jamilla went to the district offices and offered to buy a refrigerator for the clinic. They said the officials were embarrassed and two days later a new refrigerator arrived. Since they’d already collected the money the women decided to pay to have the clinic whitewashed, the windows fixed and to make a laying in room complete with a bed, bedding, table, chairs and kettle. On seeing this the men from the mosque took up a collection and purchased floor coverings for the clinic. These women used their wealth and influence to leverage resources from the government, finance repairs and get a donation from the local faith based organization.
During a recent visit to the clinic the women said they’d done some disaster mitigation work, paying a machine operator to clear a drainage canal so there would be less danger of flooding. They also said they want to run Jamilla for president of their town. They’d heard the story of a woman named Rano in a nearby town whose group got her elected president and think with a combined membership of more than 510, they can do it too. Next project they said was voter registration. They also asked for new health education materials as they’d read everything in the clinic.
These are women who had little control over their lives. They were isolated from each other and they had no resources. These are the defining characteristics of poverty. Through this program they discovered that they have the ability to make decisions, join together and apply resources. In this way they beat poverty and create for themselves wealth and influence. This is not empowerment – they had the power. This is just showing them how to engage the gears and unleash the power.
Save the Children International
Reader Comments (3)
Thanks for that charming article! I love the concept of Indifferent Money - I've got some of that myself.
I especially liked the emphasis on "You Decide". As a parent, I've faced a similar dilemma. It appears to me that I am faced with the question, "Should I let my children learn from their own mistakes?" Of course, inevitably, my kids have done things that we assumed would be mistakes that ended up working out beautifully.
In the cases in Tajikistan as you describe them - yes, you leave the decisions up to the groups, but you throw in some coaching too: "You decide, but it is good to keep about 30% aside in case you or a child needs a doctor or medicine – but it is up to you." That seems to me like a good level of coaching, although of course reasonable people can disagree about how prescriptive to be.
The important thing is to treat people like the adult decision makers that they are - give them all the information you have that might be useful, and then stand aside and let them decide what to do.
Sat, April 23, 2011 | Paul Rippey
Thanks Will for your great post! I felt energized by it.
I am definitely going to use the concept of 'indifferent money' to get through to people who feel they, or someone in their household, have to have a full time job in order to save and that the savings sum has to be big!
And I love the 'You decide' emphasis as well. My training officers and I just had a mini-retreat where they decided that the most important skill they are learning is -- you guessed it -- coaching!
Sun, April 24, 2011 | Jill Thompson
Great stuff, Will. I'll have to check out the book too. Have you looked at the WORTH literacy/savings/women's empowerment program PACT put together in Nepal about 10 years ago? I think it is now run by Samjauta, a Nepali NGO. Jeff Ashe did an evaluation that you might be able to find online or through PACT if you are interested. I want to say that they found some years later - post PACT - that the idea had spread organically and there were something like $10million in savings nationwide. Really impressive results.
Tue, May 10, 2011 | Todd Garth