A Short History Of SG Conferences
About every two years for the last decade, there has been an international Savings Group conference. The next one is happening in Kigali on May 22-24 2018. I've had the pleasure of being at each of these, and I'm taking a moment to share my memories of them - which of course might not be the same as your memories, and might not even be accurate.
March 2009, Boston. It all began with a conference at Tufts University called Microfinance from Below: The Power of Savings and Savings Groups in Frontier Economies. (Not everyone considers this the first SG conference and some give that honor to the next one in Arusha, but ... whatever.) This conference, organized by Savings Revolution co-founder Kim Wilson, demonstrated that the informal sector was something worthy of holding a conference about. It didn't feel like there was a Savings Group sector then, just a lot of activities, and the growing recognition that a lot of people managed a lot of money without the help of banks. I recall standing up when someone was talking about the urgency of getting formal finance involved, and being as dramatic as possible: "If you try to bring in MFIs to make wholesale loans to these groups, I'll stand in the door way and say, You Shall Not Pass!" Something like that. The conversation has cooled down a bit since then... One of the great things about this conference was the pleasure of having Moira Eknes among the participants.
October 2011, Arusha. This conference, the Savings Group Summit, was organized by committee, with a lot of participation from SEEP, but also from Bill Maddocks now of the Carsey Institute. We did some innovative things there, including opening and closing the conference with a World Cafe exercise. Some people have questioned whether the World Cafe accomplished anything, and they might be right, but I do still hear people talking about how much they enjoyed it. A highlight of the conference was Stuart Rutherford's opening remarks, in which he sounded a number of cautions to the sector, and helped us remember that it hadn't been exactly proven that SGs were the best way to help people save, and that they were not for everyone!
March 2013, Washington DC. This one was called the Global Conference on Savings Groups, but as I recall it wasn't quite as global as many wished: it's hard to get to Washington, and it was even harder post World Trade Center. This conference took place as Financial Inclusion was becoming A Big New Idea, so there were workshops on the place of SGs within the financial system. All good stuff, but the absolute highlight for me was an address by Larry Reed. Working closely with the microcredit movement, Larry had encountered through skepticism, received overwhelming praise from devoted followers, been surrounded by inflated claims, and lived through the shock of objective studies that showed that a lot of what was claimed just wasn't justified. I thought his remarks nailed it, especially when he said, "It's not all about the money." We should all read this address from time to time.
November 2015, Lusaka Zambia. The Power of Savings Groups was organized by SEEP and FSD Zambia, and featured technology, Savings Groups Plus, research, and of course a lot of getting SGs involved with financial service providers. Like all of these conferences, it had both content and a sort of love-in aspect, where the conversations over coffee and in the evening were as important as anything that happened in the meeting rooms. I got to introduce the training videos that I had helped FSD Zambia produce, and we introduced the SEEP Program Performance Guidelines. My favorite moment (all about me) was when at the closing plenary, when we were discussing the need for more and better data, I took the mic to say, "For me, we will have done our job when we have no idea how many Savings Groups there are, when we have taken all we know, packaged it in an accessible format, and given it to the people to spread it widely among themselves." I know that doesn't resonate with everyone...
May 2018, Kigali. And now, it's time for another conference - SG 2018, The Power of Savings Groups: Inclusion, Resilience, Empowerment. The themes cover everything anybody cares about: (1) Approaches to Increasing Scale, Sustainability, and Impact; (2) Formal Financial Services; (3) Reaching More Vulnerable and Diverse Populations; and (4) Savings Groups and Gender-transformative Initiatives. Here's the thing: the date for submitting a proposal to present something is very soon - 10th November! (Okay, look, full disclosure: in years past, that date has been extended, and it might be extended again, but don't count on it!) If you are reading this, you have something to share. You do. Seriously! Think about what you would like to present, get some people to present with you, and go for it! More information here.