That Blasted Blue Box

That Blasted Blue Box

That blue metal mascot that follows members from meeting to meeting occupies center stage in most savings group gatherings. The box exists to store cash and passbooks in a way that ensures safety and inspires good organization. In some cases the box appears as a simple cash container and in others as a monstrous vault welded under the hand of Dr. Frankenstein. It is nearly always blue. (Thank you Paul Rippey for coloring the box in our logo, green.)

What is the problem with such a contraption? For starters, many agencies promoting savings groups insist that the box be part and parcel of The Method. They claim no group could be jumpstarted without the box or its triple locks. No one dare deviate from The Method, even if the box is cumbersome, attracts the attention of thieves, or puts its custodian, often the treasurer, in danger.

But a larger issue with the-box-as-integral-to-The-Method thinking is that group members are brainwashed from the get-go into believing that only in the possession of such a vessel can their activities be made legitimate. (“My group is not real without a blue box.”) Recognizing their symbolic value, NGOs will subsidize the cost of the boxes, which can run anywhere between $3-45.

So far, no worries. The box is expensive. NGOs pay for it. Groups use it. But this happy scenario dissolves when NGOs expect groups to self-replicate, and this is often the expectation. Yet, what self-respecting new group would commence without a proper artifact of The Method – the blue box – fully on display? None. So at the end of the project, NGOs are left with these prospects: 1) No new groups form because the absence of the blue box stalls interest 2) NGOs encourage older groups (who have built up cash) to give a new group its box as a kindly gesture 3) local metal workers fabricate boxes for group purchase, yet which in reality no group will purchase because The Method has spawned a coupled message in its meme: the box must be blue and it must be free!

In any case, it might be far better if eager NGOs thought these things through at the beginning of a project. Could a new group itself locate a box or a metal worker to make a box and award itself the box at share out? (getting by in the meantime with a yellow plastic bag, which is what ASCAs in Assam, India have been doing for decades?) A little ingenuity at the beginning of the project might prompt a little self-replication at the end of the project, making that blasted blue box a little less blasted.


Reader Comments (3)

Hey Kim,

My goodness. "Brainwashed"? "Dr. Frankenstein"? "The Method"?

Anyway, I and others have argued as you do against free boxes, for some of the reasons you give. Free Most Things build dependency, and Subsidized Anything limits expansion. So we agree on that. But I'd like to send some love to the many projects that do charge for boxes (usually gray in my African experience, and not infrequently made of wood, by the way).

I have special respect for CARE Kenya, which has worked with local artisans who now make boxes for sale through local shops - same for passbooks, which are widely available for fifty shillings, about 60 cents. Everyone wins: CARE doesn't have to worry about it, one barrier to groups forming other groups has been removed, and the private sector has taken over a job from the NGO sector, almost always a good thing.

I'll take this opportunity to point out something else about the boxes that doesn't get much attention: the ritualized opening and closing of the box are an important part of the social glue that turns twenty people under a mango tree into a group. There's no pressing security reason for a group to have three locks, but there's a ceremonial reason, rooted in the short but deep tradition of savings groups. When the box opens, people's behavior and attention changes, becomes more respectful and purposeful, and generally stays that way until the box is locked again.

Very best, and thanks for a provocative post,


Sat, October 20, 2012 | Paul Rippey

here at Mpendulo, a group member, who is also a metal worker, makes our boxes for us. We also charge for the box and some people even order a box from the metal worker for their own purposes (though not always with 3 locks).

In our urban areas, many members haven't known each other for that long, so the box gives the other people in the group more confidence that the holder won't tamper with it in between meetings. It isn't nearly as weighty as the blue box, but when we explain Mpendulo to potential new groups, there are approving nods as the box is passed around for inspection. It is good marketing for us!

Thanks for good food for thought!

Mon, October 22, 2012 | Jill Thompson

Hey Paul -

Thanks for this response.

I think the ritual of the box is pleasing to outsiders because it renders the process orderly and legible. That's what development people look for ... order. Nothing messy and for sure no chaos. But I have seen fantastic ASCAs with nothing but a yellow sack in which to keep their funds - some have gone on for decades.


Mon, October 22, 2012 | 

NOTE: As you can see, this was originally published back in October 2012. In retrospect, I think Kim was mostly right about "the box" - ahead of her time as usual!


Digitizing the Kaleidoscope of Informal Money Management Practices

Digitizing the Kaleidoscope of Informal Money Management Practices

Big Mouth, Big Appetite

Big Mouth, Big Appetite