Kudos and Lessons from one movement to another

Microcredit Summit Campaign director, Larry Reed, addressed the Savings Group Conference on “Expanding Financial Inclusion and Development,” which was held March 4 – 5 in Arlington, VA. The conference convened a broad community of stakeholders to discuss experiences, results, and impacts from Savings Groups programs. The conference culminated in participants collaboratively defining the vision of Savings Groups going forward. The following are Larry’s closing remarks.

It has been my great pleasure and honor to have spent these last two days with you learning about all that is being accomplished through Savings Groups. In the previous session we heard about the goal to reach 50 million savings group members by 2020 and were asked to write down what our part might be to help make that happen.

I can answer for the Microcredit Summit Campaign.

I want to be a megaphone for you, a place where your message of providing financial services through self-managed groups can be spread to all those who work on financial inclusion.

Now, at the end of this conference, I would like to give you some words of commendation and caution from one movement to another. The Microcredit Summit Campaign began with a large international Summit  that brought together more than 2900 people in 1997, including more than 20 heads of state and government and 1,500 organizations from 137 countries. At that first meeting, we set the goal to reach 100 million of the world’s poorest with microcredit and other financial services. When we started counting the number of microcredit clients in 1998, we found that we were starting with a base of 16 million clients (If you’re talking about poorest clients, it was estimated that 8 million poorest were being reached in (Dec 1997).

Over the past 16 years we have learned a lot about building and sustaining a global movement. We’ve done some things well and we’ve done other things that we would definitely do differently, knowing what we know today.

I want to pass on my advice to you in four phrases.

 

1. I’m Part of Something Bigger

I commend you for the ambitious target that you set today for having 50 million people in Savings Groups by 2020. Starting at 7 million today, that puts you on a path with a similar steep slope to the one that you have been on.

Setting ambitious targets is important for a global movement. It helps everyone who participates see how their work fits into a much bigger whole. While each individual person or institution may only be able to contribute a small portion of the whole, the sum of all these activities depicts an international force that makes it possible for us to believe that we will see the end of severe poverty in our lifetimes.

As a movement, you will need to keep all of us informed on how we are progressing against this audacious goal and what we can be doing to help bring it about.

 

2. Count What Matters

While it is important to lead with a large goal, it is also imperative to measure whether or not you are achieving the results you are aiming for. Your end goal is not just to include a large number of people in Savings Groups, but to see those people benefit in some way from their participation.

We have learned this lesson the hard way in the microfinance community and the Microcredit Summit Campaign, specifically. When we started, we counted only the number of clients reached, assuming that all clients would experience positive benefits. We saw it as our job to promote the sector, and we tended to tell only the stories of the best candidates in public.

Then came the academic studies. What they showed us was that the benefits for many microfinance clients were much less than what we had communicated.

This was closely followed by one crisis after another of over lending fueled by commercialization, demonstrating that some microfinance organizations cared more about their own bottom line than their clients’ welfare. We have been rushing to retrofit our systems ever since, developing initiatives like the Smart Campaign and the Pro-Poor Seal of Excellence to insure that clients are protected from harm and that we can show that we are accomplishing the results that we set out to achieve.

I encourage the Savings Group movement to set quality indicators from the start. In the next year or two, develop indicators not only of the number of clients you are reaching, but also whether those clients are experiencing real benefits as a result of being part of a Savings Group. I know at this early stage it is hard to imagine that anyone could use these groups for personal profit and in the process do harm to the group members, but that’s what we once thought about microcredit.

I also encourage you to be as open about your challenges and failures as you are about your successes. I know that this is hard when you’re trying to promote a movement, but you will gain much more credibility if outsiders can see you taking on your challenges in the light of day.

When the day comes that someone wants to publish a study or a story that shows a negative side of Savings Groups, you will be able to show that not only are you already aware of it, but you are working to fix it.

3.  It’s Not About the Money (Money, Money)

I’ve heard a lot of discussion at this conference about the need to convince donors to pay for the subsidy required to get Savings Groups started. And I hope you are successful at this and find many foundations and government agencies that recognize the critical role that Savings Groups play in bringing about the type of financial inclusion that empowers those living in poverty.

At the same time, I want to encourage you to continue to experiment with ways that will allow Savings Groups to start and spread without external subsidy. If you can do that, then the growth of your movement will not be dependent on donors but will instead depend on your ability to communicate your message and get others to spread it for you.

When I was working for Opportunity International I saw how our operating costs were limiting our ability to reach out to clients living in remote areas and in the severest form of poverty. I began researching self-replicating groups, to see what we might be able to learn about how to form groups providing financial services that continue to expand without requiring new staff members or branch offices.

One of the most successful movements of this type that I found was the 12 Step Recovery Group Movement initiated by Alcoholics Anonymous. I read up on the history of AA and learned about a critical time in their development that occurred shortly after they got started.

At the time that Alcoholics Anonymous got started, alcohol addiction was basically a death sentence. The medical profession had found no way to get addicts to stop drinking. Bill W. and Dr. Bob found a recovery system that worked in a way that nothing had before. They then sought money to help spread their movement across the country. They contacted the richest people they knew, the Rockefellers, and asked them for help.

The Rockefellers were impressed and agreed to host a dinner for the high society of New York City, but they refused to ask for money. They told the AA founders that the power of AA lay in the fact that is was self-supporting, that if they became dependent on outside money for spreading the message, then the growth of the movement would be controlled by people outside the movement.

Today hundreds of millions of people around the world are finding help for addictions through the 12 step movement, and the continued growth of that movement has all been funded by the members themselves. The motivating factor for this growth is the twelfth step, which says “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts…”

Alcoholics and other addicts know that the best way for them to stay sober is to continually work to bring the message of sobriety to other addicts who are not yet in the program. Maybe the same thing applies to those who seek to lift their families out of poverty. Perhaps they learn the lessons of savings and money management best when they are actively spreading the message of Savings Groups to others. 

4.  No One Owns a Fire

In our opening session, Nelly Otieno of CARE spoke of Savings Groups as a fire that, once started, spreads on its own. When she said that, it reminded me of a saying that I heard while living in Zimbabwe: “No one owns a fire.” This saying referred to the way people in the rural areas built their fires for cooking. They would borrow hot coals from someone else’s fire to start their own. In this way, every fire had its origins in the fires of others throughout the community.

The work of Savings Groups has grown into a global movement because this is the attitude you have taken to what you learn and experience. You share freely with each other, both in the field and in conferences like this one.

I encourage you to maintain this attitude, even as you look for funding and seek to highlight the good work of your own organizations.

Each of you has learned from the work of others in this movement, your achievements have come because you have built upon the experiences of others. This movement will continue to grow as you continue to share with others, providing the spark that others need to light their own fires that provide warmth and sustenance to new communities.

No single organization here can, on its own, reach the goal of 50 million savings group members by 2020. By working together, sharing what you know with each other, building on each other’s successes and failures, I expect you will not only reach that target, but far surpass it.

Your movement is a very important one for the development community. It shows how the work of addressing poverty can be built upon the courage, hard work, and meager incomes of those living in poverty.

It shows those of us who live with plenty that we have a lot to learn from those who can survive and grow on so little.

And it helps us work together in true partnership to build a world where what it means to be human is to not allow a place for severe poverty in our community—or anywhere in our world.

Keep up the good work you are doing.

--Larry Reed

Chairman, Microcredit Summit Campaign