Working with Savings Groups During COVID-19
Savings groups, also known as Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA), are some of the most consistent and sustainable platforms for community programming across many sectors and contexts. Currently, there are more than 15 million members in savings groups in more than 73 countries around the world.
These groups are overwhelmingly made up of poor, rural women, and provide a critical engine for economic opportunity, source of social solidarity and a safety net for many families in vulnerable situations. These groups have proven that they are resilient and resourceful. Often, they are at the frontlines of their local response to crises. Some examples:
Women in Somalian savings groups organized $40 cash transfers to at-risk families during the 2015-2016 drought.
During a 2014 conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, women organized houses, food and jobs for refugees in need.
In Niger, communities decided to put the VSLA groups in charge of all of the food aid distribution from the government because, “it is obvious that they have more management capacity than us men, and are better able to maintain social cohesion,” according to a village chief.
COVID-19 poses crucial health and economic risks for savings groups as markets falter, mobility is restricted, and community gathering is restrained. The majority of members are women who are likely to be primary caregivers in a health crisis, which puts them at special risk of additional burdens. With financial assistance from the U.S. Agency of International Development and several other agencies, CARE has partnered with 8.4 million savings groups since 1991. Given the importance of savings groups to CARE and their respective communities, CARE recently released guidance to help implementers consider how best to support savings groups and their members during this crisis. Given the importance of savings groups in CARE’s work, and the scope of 8.4 million savings groups we have worked with since 1991, CARE is releasing this guidance immediately to support our teams. CARE is working with the Small Enterprise Evaluation network and others to craft industry-wide guidelines as soon as it is feasible.
The tips in the guidance also address how to support savings groups as leaders of community-level response efforts and maintain safety nets. Our top priorities must be Do No Harm and protect the safety and health of all of the people we serve and our staff. At the same time, we need to support initiatives that will allow communities to continue to benefit from savings groups that serve as immediate safety nets during the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises.
Recommendations For All Stakeholders
Protect savings group members’ health. Start every conversation with ensuring Do No Harm principles for all of the savings groups with whom we work. All staff members should adhere to WHO guidelines for personal protection against COVID-19, or the relevant guidance from the National Ministry of Health and ensure that they themselves are not carrying COVID-19 into communities.
Support savings groups to create adaptation plans. Savings groups are highly resourceful and the model itself is highly adaptable. The top priority should be to help savings groups understand the current crisis and its potential impacts (health, economic, social, personal and community security) and support them to develop adaptation plans.
Create contingency plans. Given the pace of COVID-19 spread, mobility restrictions may be put in place with very short notice and without the opportunity for savings groups to generate an adaptation plan. Start planning immediately for how to reach out in a restricted mobility scenario if quarantines come into force, including new communications mechanisms.
The guidance provides recommendations for savings group promoters, community-based trainers and groups themselves to adapt their work so communities can respond to the current crisis.