Yesterday, we posted here the first half of Larry Reed’s closing remarks—words of commendation and caution from one movement to another—at the Savings Group Conference on “Expanding Financial Inclusion and Development,” which was held March 4 – 5 in Arlington, VA. The following is the conclusion, phases 3 and 4, of that advice.
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.