Mabel Guevara, Part I: Convincing the Skeptics
Mabel Guevara is the regional advisor on savings groups for CRS Central America, and has facilitated the integration of the savings groups methodology into diverse projects throughout Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. I had the opportunity to work with Mabel on the Catholic Relief Services Agriculture for Basic Needs project last summer, and was inspired by her vision, drive and the personal touch that she brings to her work. This morning I asked Mabel to share her story about bringing savings groups to rural communities in Central America.
These are her words:
Bringing Savings Groups to Central America
I was first introduced to savings groups in July 2008 at a training taught by Dr. Gaye Burpee and Kim Wilson. They trained 30 tecnicos, but most of the other tecnicos were skeptical that savings groups would work in Central America. The other tecnicos commented: The poor can’t save. We at NGOs are work to help the poor – the poor need tangible benefits.
Later that month, I visited several groups formed by Oxfam. The groups were saving, but I still had doubts. CRS insisted that I lead the savings group project. I had no experience with savings. I needed to see how a savings group would work in my own life. My father has always told me - If you want to teach something, you have to do it first.
I started talking to my neighbors and family and formed one savings group of 14 neighbors and another with my family in August 2008. We all had our own goals: one woman planned to save for Christmas dinner, another wanted to buy a new bed cover, and the children wanted new clothes. I bought two bright blue lock boxes at the local department store out with my own money and we began to save. We didn’t have registers, just notebooks that we used to keep track of the date and how much each person had saved. It was among family and friends, so we didn’t make loans.
In October 2008, I took my first trip to San Antonio de Mosco, a remote town at the Northernmost tip of San Miguel to introduce savings groups. When I arrived, it was mostly men – maybe 14 and seven women. The project team was skeptical about the value of savings. The communities where they worked were extremely poor. The priest challenged me immediately: How did it occur to you to talk about savings when people often don’t have enough to eat? The men repeated his doubts insisting - We are poor. How can we save if we don’t have money and asked, what benefits will this project bring? The women were silent. It seemed that everyone was against me.
Somehow it occurred to me to ask the crowd if they owned a cell phone. Everyone nodded, many in the audience had two phones. I asked to speak to the women separately. The women told me: We think we can save. We would like to try.
When I returned to the community, the seven women had convened a total of 120 women interested in savings in two rural communities in the rocky foothills an hour’s walk from town. The communities elected five women to receive a training to become promoters, and by the end of the year the five promoters had formed ten savings groups in their communities.
Reader Comments (6)
Beautiful story, Suzanne. I went through a similar exercise during a study in 2004 in Cambodia, and hit the same wall. It seemed that everyone understood the word 'savings' as 'savings in cash, in a bank.' Since few had any cash, and even fewer had ever set foot in a bank, they said they were "too poor to save." We had to unpack the concept and ask them what expenses they had dealt with in the past few months? Suddenly we found savings all over the place. A very large part of our work is unpacking language and concepts, and making them accessible.
Tue, April 12, 2011 | Brett Matthews
I also loved this post and - being an ex-CRS employee assigned to promote the 'old' microfinance - am happy that CRS is moving ahead with the Savings Revolution!
We also are challenged by the firmly held idea that "the poor cannot save". We would like to become better at chipping away at that idea, especially among the so-called poor themselves!
To that end, I would love to hear more from Brett and Suzanne on how exactly you "unpack" the concept and win over the doubting Thomases. Is it possible to start a resource exchange somehow? Can you direct me to someplace where you have materials available for downloading?
Thu, April 21, 2011 | Jill Thompson
I've attached the methodology (line of questioning etc.) that we used for the study I referenced above. It 'unpacks' the concept in a way that gets poor people talking (at least, it Cambodia it did).
It would be interesting to hear from Suzanne on this, too.
Thu, April 21, 2011 | Brett Matthews
It appears you have to click on my name to see the attachment. Sorry for the confusion.
Thu, April 21, 2011 | Brett Matthews
Thanks Brett. I downloaded the paper and it looks interesting. I'll let you know how it works out here.
Tue, April 26, 2011 | Jill Thompson
Thank you! I unfortunately don't have anything in English, but here is the link to those fabulous manuals that Mabel helped put together. I think what has worked best in Central America is showing doubters that savings groups are working in communities just like their own either through stories or visits. The images used in the booklets are drawn from one of the poorest communities within the A4N program - and that same community now has 8 different savings groups.
Wed, April 27, 2011 | Suzanne