Hyenas Circling the Hut
A big problem with Savings Groups is how successful they are.
They often last for many years, and members save a lot of money. Maybe not individual members, but when you multiply individual savings by twenty members or so, the group’s savings become a nice bundle. And, when you multiple that by the hundreds or thousands of groups that may exist in an area, then the sums get very important indeed.
So Savings Groups - because they are so successful - tend to consolidate a lot of money in one place, or at least, close enough that clever people start thinking of clever ways to separate poor people from their money.
Some readers may have heard Amrik Heyer’s presentation at SG2015 in Lusaka: she used the phrase “the hyenas are circling the hut” to describe this phenomenon, which FSD Kenya has begun to study.
It’s not a pretty picture. Groups get targeted by all sorts of people and institutions, including those whose job it is to protect the group. Some of those trying to relieve the poor of their money that we saw in Kenya include:
- School teachers, who join groups, have themselves elected chairman, and then proceed to change the contstitution so they can borrow more. You can guess how well they pay back.
- Rogue agents, who train groups in some new and bad ideas, including “trainers can borrow from all their groups” and “members must pay the trainer annual dues - forever”.
- Churches, which use their moral authority to urge members to keep all their savings in structures that the churches themselves set up, so they can make larger loans to local merchants.
- Networks of agents, who do about the same thing, setting up Community Based Organizations and SACCOs to consolidate savings into larger pools to be managed by - you guessed it! - the same networks.
- Banks and MFIs, who pay trainers a fixed amount per member or per group they bring into the bank, so that self-managing savings-led groups can get into a cycle of ever-increasing external debt.
- Ponzi schemes and swindlers. You know about them.
- Armed robbers, who in some cases have murdered treasurers, in some cases while they were taking money to a bank.
There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that most groups are smart, and they remember to follow the procedures they have learned, keep information confidential, and not lend or borrow outside the group.
But - the bad news: sometimes the hyenas succeed and poor people lose their money to clever lazy corrupt people. Do NGOs have any moral responsibility for post-project outcomes? Is there anything we can do, in fact?
Well, yes to both of those questions.
If we put poor people into a situation filled with risk, it’s appropriate to take steps to reduce the risk. And, yes, there is a lot we can do. It all starts with the training we give to the groups - not just about how to run a group well, although we do that - but also about what the members should expect after the project ends.