Esteeming the beauty of the savings group

Photo courtesy of Paul Rippey

This savings group in Malawi runs their meeting following an austere and beguiling ritual
Photo courtesy of Paul Rippey

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>> Authored by Paul Rippey, Co-Founder and Editor, Savings Revolution. This article is also being published in Savings Revolution

In his EvangelIi Gaudium (Apostolic Exhortation), Pope Francis says that ethics “calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace.” What a wonderful phrase!

The categories of the marketplace that Francis is referring to are things like profit and loss, return on investment, market share, business cases, and financial inclusion.

We have, maybe unknowingly, maybe indifferently, often let these categories become the sole points of reference for discussions of what is important in microfinance. They have become the criteria for decision-making and the measures for evaluating our actions. They have largely pushed other values out of the way — values like truth, beauty, harmony, integrity, virtue, and mindfulness.

I thought about this when I visited a beautiful savings group in Malawi last month. I don’t mean it was beautiful in some abstract sense, like “they followed their procedures beautifully.” I mean that it was beautiful because of the way it looked. The members — who had invested in similar outfits, white shirts and green chitenje clothes, all spotless — sat in a circle, taking a moment to adjust their positions so the circle was as perfect as they could make it. They ran the meeting following an austere and beguiling ritual: each member coming forward in turn and kneeling in the center, conducting her affairs with the group and then returning to her place before the next member came forward.

That beauty seems to have arisen spontaneously from the members. It was the value they added to the cash-management and meeting procedures they had carefully learned. I can’t quantify the added value of the beauty, because it is in a different category from the familiar averages and ratios — amounts saved and lent, attendance, and portfolio performance.

What if we could predict with reasonable confidence that a certain development investment would likely encourage people to lie or might reduce trust between people or could make the world uglier? Would we still want to support it, even if it raised incomes of poor people? Would we at least take those other factors into consideration, along with ROI (return on investment)?

I believe that some of the resistance many people have to turning savings groups into adjuncts to banks, or helping people enter the consumer society, or putting great emphasis on financial inclusion over other values — this comes from the fear that we are giving up non-marketplace values in the process. I don’t know how to solve the equation of balancing marketplace and non-marketplace values, but I am confident that both are important and that the beauty of the savings group I saw in Malawi makes the world a better place — even if we can’t put a price on it.

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