When Savings Groups Save More than Money

By Oxfam
SfC + WASH training against Ebola at a Saving for Change group meeting in Senegal. Photo: Marina Tripaldi/Oxfam America

Savings groups respond to the unmet needs of the rural poor by providing a secure place to save; the opportunity to borrow small amounts on flexible terms.

Malick Ndome is the Senior Policy Advisor for Oxfam America. Malick works and lives in Senegal, focusing on Oxfam’s policy advocacy which aims to support the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative launched by Oxfam America and the United Nations World Food Program to empower farmers and food insecure rural households with integrated risk management tools. James Vamboi is the Community Finance intern at Oxfam America, and is a graduate student at Boston College School of Social Work focusing on health access and risk.

Savings groups are increasingly being used as platforms to deliver other services, facilitating agencies and other organizations to take advantage of the network of existing groups. Currently, USAID and PEPFAR are invested in utilizing savings groups as a tool to provide integrated services to HIV/AIDS affected populations. 

Similarly, Oxfam’s Saving for Change (“SfC”) savings groups in Senegal leveraged existing groups into community mobilization platforms for Ebola awareness training as a prevention strategy during the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa.  While not directly affected by the crisis, Senegal shares a border with Guinea – one of the three countries where the outbreak occurred – through the regions of Tambacounda, Kolda and Kedougou, where most of the SfC groups are located.

Proper hand-washing techniques are shared during an SfC + WASH training against Ebola in Senegal. Photo: Marina Tripaldi/Oxfam America

Most of those affected by the Ebola outbreak were women. Women were most vulnerable because of their roles as mother and main actors in the management of household health problems. Similarly, savings groups target women in order to improve the financial status and opportunities of poor women and their families. With the SfC groups already established when the Ebola outbreak began, we carefully selected residents in the most exposed villages along the Senegalese-Guinean border.

“Together with the Humanitarian Response Team, we focused on priority to train those groups with Oxfam’s WASH program (Water Sanitation and Hygiene)," said Malick Ndome, Oxfam Senior Policy Advisor in Senegal.

This same basic methodology of Saving for Change groups to respond to public health needs was adopted because it was used successfully against malaria in Mali. That program dedicated a portion of its activities to debunking myths around malaria – using pictorial cards to teach group members how one gets infected with malaria, how to recognize symptoms in children, and how to receive treatment.

“We knew we had a good methodology and a footprint with SfC groups that would allow us to cover a large territory. But we could not work alone: we had to work hand-in-hand with the Government on this national emergency,” Ndome added.

The Senegalese Ministry of Health provided a memorandum of understanding, which outlined prevention methodology, and was the initial reference for the tiered training that eventually reached thousands of residents. The tiered training started with the training of Oxfam staff by Ministry of Health staff. Oxfam staff reported to the field and trained implementing partners, trainers and field agents with preventative techniques.

Oxfam established training workshops in the regions of Tambacounda, Kolda and Kedougou, and focused on understanding the disease, its spreading pattern and how to prevent infection by informing attendees of signs of infection, transmission of the Ebola virus, and handwashing techniques. To ensure replication and sustainability of the project, the facilitators identified and trained 600 women members of SfC groups as well as other partners on the field. Regarding awareness and outreach activities, in total 140,000 women were trained in Senegal by the women in the initial training sessions that occurred in the three boarder regions. Saving for Change members attended 60 radio programs due to a weekly program by area for 5 months, which reached 1 million people living in Senegal.

SfC + WASH training against Ebola at a Saving for Change group meeting in Senegal. Photo: Marina Tripaldi/Oxfam America

This effort was effective at disseminating information quickly because it used existing networks familiar to the community members. However, in retrospect we believe certain aspects of the approach could have been modified, and would have delivered a more effective result. We believe the cascading training was too long. Oxfam and all implementing partners should have been in the same initial training, as well as doctors, nurses and midwives in the community. It would have immediately provided more communication channels to deliver preventative messaging to the community as a whole. Additionally, we should have partnered Saving for Change members and medical officials together when they attended radio shows, because it would have provided the Saving for Change member with additional medical terminology support.

The methodology used in the context of the implementation of the project can be summarized in three steps: training, awareness and distribution of communication materials. We are constantly evaluating the impact of the Saving for Change model. At a time of distress we leveraged this model as tool to engage a public health disaster. We don’t know if this is the answer, but Oxfam’s Humanitarian Response team in Senegal was so impressed by the rapidity of intervention, the enthusiasm of the women to participate in the protection of their families and communities that they will use the power of savings groups to deliver public health messaging as an integral part of their response in future emergencies.

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