Nudging the Poorest into Savings Groups

Nudging the Poorest into Savings Groups

Throughout 2018, I had the pleasure of working with World Relief Malawi’s excellent Savings for Life SG program. With the local staff (see photo!), we designed and put in place a program of “nudging”, or making changes in the way that choices are presented to people so that they make better choices.

Nudges by definition are non-coercive, that is, members are not forced to do anything differently, but rather options are presented to them so they make more desirable choices. And, nudges are no-cost or at most very low cost. World Relief found it easy to take these two principles to heart: their program is based on leading people to make good choices to begin with, and they are frugal with one of the lowest costs-per-member I’ve ever seen.

In the case of Savings for Life, after much discussion, the program decided to test nudges in three areas:

Inclusive speech, or changing the way staff, volunteers and members speak about the program so that some things that might scare the poorest people away are changed to make the program more friendly. One of the nudges is encouraging Village Agents and staff to avoid saying that being in a group will “help your business”, because the poorest often do not consider that they have a business (they see themselves as laborers at best) and so they assume the program is for other people. Another nudge is to avoid assuming that everyone will take a loan; the poorest are often risk averse and don’t want to take on more risk by borrowing.

Bless your Village Agent, or letting groups know that it is okay to share some cash with their trainer, at the time of share-out or other times.

Every member bring a member. To encourage the members themselves to be responsible for the inclusiveness of the program, World Relief started a campaign using an idea borrowed from Plan Niger, inviting every member to bring at least one non-member to find out about the groups and join one if they wished.

We measured results before and after using the Poverty Probability Index questionnaire, and program statistics. The results were quite startling. But - rather than give them here, I’ll invite you to read the report!

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Some readers will ask, “Should I be nudging my participants?” In fact, it’s too late: you already are nudging. Every time anyone speaks, they frame choices for the listener in a way that influences the outcome. It is our hope that rather than do this unconsciously, readers will use the tools we point to in the report and begin to use behavioral science consciously and deliberately to make their programs stronger and more inclusive.

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I think this test was important, even extraordinary, and I hope that you will agree. I have a huge debt of gratitude to some people that I worked with, hand in hand. I start with Gift Mwase, Economic Development Coordinator for World Relief in Malawi, who quickly mastered the ideas and got behind them. I can’t imagine how this could have gone forward without Gift’s partnership and ownership of the project. Other key players were Hendrinah Ngulube, Dedza Regional Coordinator and Denview Magalasi, a local consultant who conducted the PPI interviews. I’m very grateful to the ideas and support of Gibson Nkanaunena, Country Director for World Relief Malawi; my good friend Courtney O’Connell, Senior Savings for Life Technical Advisor of World Relief; Emily Mugisha, Savings for Life Regional Technical Advisor of World Relief; and the World Relief field staff in Dedza Province. Finally, huge thanks to Grassroots Finance, an informal group of development practitioners, Rotarians, and others committed to eliminating poverty. I am honored to be associated with Grassroots Finance, and I thank them for the financial support that made this possible, all due to the generosity of their private donors, who aren’t asking for publicity but - they know who they are.

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