Savings By Stealth
Meet Doña Santos, La Clandestina. She lives in a hamlet in the mountains of El Salvador.
Embedded in the military during her country’s civil war, she served as a spy for the guerrillas. By day, she pretended to sweep the streets of her town as it lay in siege, her ears pricked to detect plans of the army’s next attacks. By night, she reported what she had overheard to co-combatants. “I was a clandestina,” she said. “People like me were forces to reckon with. We knew how to operate underground and to keep and spread secrets.”
“I am now a “clandestina de ahorros,” a savings clandestine, or a secret saver. She laughs as she tells us how she squirrels money away whenever and wherever she can. “I have good training. I am skilled in matters of hiding and now I hide money.” How does she react to the transparency of her savings group, Star of the Orient? One would think she would reel against its “open book” approach to financial management. The reverse is true.
Doña Santos now has something to “hide for” beyond herself and her immediate family. “I hide money for my neighbors, not from my neighbors. My saved money eventually winds up in the box so that my friends, family and I can use it for emergencies. I have a reason to hide it now and it feels good.” Her group displays the contents of its cash box, filled with stacks of twenty, ten and five dollar bills (US dollars are the currency of El Salvador), and tidy tubes of coras (quarters).
Though Doña Santos and other members of her group enjoy watching tangible cash accumulate in the cash box, members would prefer not to use their funds to make loans. “We don’t want to contribute to a culture credit,” says one of the male members. “Some of us had gotten into debt and it made us very poor.” A reluctance to borrow means cash stays in the lock box and at risk of theft. In the rugged mountains that surround the village where members live violence and armed robbery are common.
It turns out most savings groups in El Salvador would prefer not to lend money, even to members. Oxfam America reports less than half of group savings is out on loan. Catholic Relief Services cites a similar figure, a far smaller percentage than in other parts of the world, or even just a bit further south, in Nicaragua where more than 80% of savings is out on loan. The groups recall their reasoning time and again: “We just don’t want to be debtors.”
But, that leaves the matter of the cash and its constant exposure to theft or fire. When asked whether the group would deposit its surplus in a local bank, members had mixed feelings.
Banks, members said, were great places to save, but still out of reach of most people, including them. If you are poor and can find a branch, you may find it closed. If you find it open, the guard may scare you off and if the guard doesn’t scare you off the revolving door will, or if not the door, the paperwork. It seems that “Know Your Client,” that cheerful phrase coined by regulators to justify a pile of intimidating red tape, translates into “Exclude Your Client.” Banks may be part of the solution for groups with surplus cash, but they certainly have a long journey in their effort to become complete solutions.
So, that leaves credit unions, with some good ones and some bad ones scattered along the route from Colon to the nearest town - not a lot of options for La Clandestina and her group’s ever-brimming box of cash.
Star of the Orient has developed an interim solution. During and after meetings they engage a decoy system, where the real cash box never is in view, only a red herring. Creative, certainly, but less than ideal.
This is a good opportunity to think of connected savings, an idea to be explored in upcoming posts. Might we imagine a world where the savings of groups like Star of the Orient are connected to a larger world of savings, so that their hard-won thrift stays safe, productive and even profitable? Stay tuned.