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Do No Harm: Assuring Quality Service Delivery for Saving Groups

Written by the SLWG and Paul Rippey (Consultant for the Program Quality Guidelines Initiative)

For the last decade many Savings Groups practitioners have focused more on efficient delivery, reducing costs and achieving scale than on program quality. With so much right about the SG experience, it has been easy to gloss over what might be wrong. This trend is dangerously close to echoing what happened in the microcredit sector where it took major crises to command attention to the need for consumer protection.

Furthermore, Savings Groups are catching on, embraced by an increasingly diverse development agents and practitioners. While certainly good news, such diversification does beg the question:  Does the rapid growth of Savings Groups put their members at risk? Do diverse implementers with varying agendas compromise SG principles or service quality? Amidst the enthusiasm for Savings Groups, do practitioners pay enough attention to what can go wrong?

We all know that there are incentives at every level to report on success stories more than any problems. That’s true for the Savings Group, the Village Agent, the Field Officer, the Project Manager, the local and international NGOs, even for the donors. Who wants to be the person to call attention to failures and things that didn’t go according to plan? Yet, problems do occur—SGs break up, a few members lose their money in the process, and not all produce all the positive impacts that we love to talk about.

But are such mishaps rare occurrences or growing risks? We don’t really know, but we do know that it is time to start asking questions:
  • While Savings Groups are generally thought of as safe places to save, how safe are they? Do members ever lose their money? How often does that happen? What leads to loss of savings?
  • While data shows that Savings Groups tend to stay together, some do break up. What causes them to break up and what happens when they do?
  • Many trainers are brilliant: they have a great understanding of procedures and group dynamics, they are effective communicators, and they love their work. But not all are so effective. What are the risks posed by poor training or the less than honest trainer?
  • Savings Groups are excellent platforms for other development services, but how many extra activities are too many? Can such ‘add-ons’ mitigate the group’s capacity to manage itself? Do the providers of the ‘add-on’ introduce requirements that compromise SG practices and principles?
The Savings-Led Working Group (SLWG) of SEEP in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation is working closely with the SG community to develop guidelines for program quality, social performance and consumer protection — that is, principles and guidelines to help agencies succeed in getting the results they want for their Savings Group members. Broadly, what needs to be in place to ensure that programs ‘do no harm’?

Over the next few months, this initiative will go through several steps. Very soon, the SLWG will circulate an on-line questionnaire to gather practitioners’ experience with issues that impact the quality of Savings Groups and what they are doing about it. Instead of responding to imagined threats—what could go wrong—we want to get a better sense of actual threats and occurrences that compromise group quality and develop a response to those real risks. This blog post is the first, but not the last time, that you will be invited, encouraged even, to respond to the questionnaire. We need to learn from as many of you as possible!

We also plan to interview a large group of key people representing a broad cross section NGOs, researchers, donors, and consultants to find out how they approach program quality, consumer protection and social performance, how they measure them and what tools can they share.

Combining all this information, we’ll develop a draft set of guidelines and instruments, circulate them widely for your review and improvements, develop a second draft for review, and publish a final version in the first quarter of 2015.

This initiative will help our community to get out in front of risks before they become debilitating problems and help to make Savings Groups even better places to save and borrow. We look forward to working with you.

To learn more about the initiative , please fill out the information form here.  

1 Comment

Uchenna Ossai says:
Mar 03, 2015

This is interesting! Fact: the excitement about what savings groups can do in poverty reduction could create room for harm if practitioners are not aware that everything good may have unintended negative consequences. I find this valuable and will include it as a training module for FAs

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