What do we know about the impact of savings groups on poor African women?

May 15, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Savings for Change (SfC) is one of Oxfam America’s flagship programmes, reaching 680,000 members, mostly women, in 13 countries.sophie romana 2 Here Sophie Romana, Oxfam America’s Deputy Director of Community Finance, reports on some findings from an innovative qualitative and quantitative survey of the groups in Mali, published today (click through to summary or full report).

How do you save money and borrow when you live in rural sub-Saharan Africa?  Millions of women do just that every week, through their Savings Group.  Formed and monitored by teams of field agents from local organizations, 20 to 25 women gather every week at the same time and place to put a few cents in a wooden “savings box”. Once there is enough money in the box – i.e. the saving fund – members who need a small, short-term loan come in front of the self-managed group to explain the purpose of the loan (food purchases, life’s emergencies or working capital for an income generating activity).  The loans are paid back to the group with interest, which provides them with a return.  In a nutshell, savings groups provide basic financial services to poor rural women underserved or ignored by commercial banks and microfinance institutions.

But does belonging to a group actually improve the lives of members, their families, and their villages? To answer this, Oxfam America and Freedom from Hunger commissioned Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA) at the University of Arizona to conduct a unique piece of joint research on Saving for Change groups in Mali: a randomized controlled trial (RCT) combined with a qualitative longitudinal study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The RCT included 500 villages: in 210 of them we introduced SFC, the other 290 were “controlled” (intentionally left out of the intervention) to try and measure the difference, hence the impacts. The qualitative survey focused on 19 villages included in the RCT and interviewed members, husbands, women non-members, villagers etc… This mixed-methods approach combines the benefits of ‘quant’ and ‘qual’ to try and get under the skin of the impacts of savings groups.

Saving for Change fig 1The findings of the three-year study (see chart) show encouraging results in terms of increased saving (up 31%) and lending (12% more women took a loan from a savings group), increased food security, and an increased investment in livestock (households in SfC villages own on average $120 more in livestock, which buys you four goats, three ewes or one calf).  The findings also demonstrate that savings groups reach the poorest of the poor with 82% of households in study villages living on less than $1.25 a day.

The results from the RCT also show that there was almost no change in income and health and education expenses. We hope that these results will come with longer study, but we are not sure.

Social capital, one of the outcomes most valued by group members, is proving to be a puzzle. The group offers a safe space for women to share family problems and seek advice from each other. Outside the meeting, women have also reported over the years that they tend to greet each other more in the village, and engage with each other more often than before they joined.  But here’s our evidence puzzle: this is what the anthropological findings support, but they were not captured at all by the quantitative-RCT.

Take up rate: how do groups get created in zones where we don’t run the program?

Based on feedback from our partners and staff, Oxfam started to train “volunteer replicators” members who themselves train new groups. They have been responsible for SfC “going viral” In treatment zones the take up rate is 40.5% of women – by comparison in other similar approaches such as microcredit, the take up rate is 15% to 22.5%.

But the replicators have unexpectedly ‘spilled over’ into control villages, far away from a treatment village. This may mess up the control zones by “contaminating” the sample for the RCT, but it’s potentially good news for the women in those villages, and a testament to the attraction of savings schemes like SfC.

Depending on how strict a definition of a Saving for Change group we used (other traditional groups resemble SfC groups), we see a take up rate in control zones varying from 6% to 12% of women.  So how did that happen?  Did a conversation in the market lead to the replicator offering to go and create a new group there?  Did a member get married, move to another village and start a group there? Did a woman decide to help her daughter in another village to set up a group? Traveling to another village to form a group is challenging for many Malian women, yet SfC groups were created with no encouragement or promotion from the project, no visits from paid field agents.

We also found that women who are more socially integrated and already have an income generating activity are more likely to join earlier, but that more marginalized women do indeed join later on. When women want to save money together, they find a way to make it happen.

Are members of SFC more resilient?

Whatever your own personal definition of resilience may be, in the Sahel any sign of resilience is a success. The study took place in the Segou region ofSaving for Change logo Mali, where 40% of the households experienced a ‘shock’ last year (food price increase, drought, or illness) and 40% are food insecure (unable to produce or buy nutritious food). Households in SfC villages experienced an 8% increase in reported food security and were also eating more during the hungry season – spending 39¢ more per adult per week on food during this difficult time of year and eliminating the seasonal dip. In Mali 39¢ buys you a plate of nutritious beans or a few large cassava roots.  We also found that this impact is greatest for one of the most marginalized groups of women, those women married to younger brothers in large households.

From my point of view as a program manager, I see a value in combining an RCT with a qualitative study because I need to know if the program produces the impacts we designed it for and if it does not, what needs to be corrected.  However I do have a lot of questions around the findings, which I regularly debate with my Monitoring, Evaluating and Learning colleagues. That being said, would I run another RCT if a donor asked for (and funded!) one? Why not? Would I look for funding to run another RCT? Not necessarily – there are other less expensive tools to measure program impacts.  But for the time being, I’ll say with the confidence that only statistical evidence can give me: belonging to a savings group does make your life better!

Sophie Romana. with Janina Matuzeski and Clelia Anna Mannino. Today also sees an important Mali donor conference. Oxfam report here.