Oxfam America’s Saving for Change (SfC) program has operated in the Chalatenango region of El Salvador since April 2007. Saving for Change brings savings-led financial services to rural communities that are not served by mainstream microfinance. The methodology recognizes that the primary need of the poor is consumption-smoothing in the form of savings rather than the assumption of additional risk through external credit sources. The program therefore starts by forming groups of about 20 women who pool their savings and then lend this fund to each other at a group-established interest rate. The interest paid on the loans accrues to the group, increasing the size of each member’s funds. Chalatenango’s rural location, high incidence of poverty, limited access to financial services, and its strong and well-respected local development organizations make the department well-suited for the implementation of the Saving for Change program.
As Oxfam plans to increase the size of the program in Chalatenango, reaching 6,600 women by 2011 — over 2,000 members per year — operations and program delivery mechanisms must be considered in detail. This study therefore focuses on these factors to evaluate the program’s potential for future expansion both within El Salvador and in other countries in the region. In addition, the study presents a preliminary analysis of the program’s impacts on participants and suggests future areas of research.
The research team used a representative sample of ten savings groups, and carried out both qualitative and quantitative interviews with 24 group members and 18 non-members. In addition, open-ended interviews with Oxfam staff, partners, promotoras (field staff), and local community leaders were instrumental in understanding their ideas for the present and future directions of the program.
The study found that Saving for Change is operating effectively and is well placed for future expansion. At the time of the study, the program was operational in 17 of the 33 municipalities in the Department of Chalatenango. Together, Oxfam’s partners are exceeding group formation targets of an additional 2,200 members for the year. Primary operational/delivery strengths include the commitment and experience of partner staff and promotoras and the expertise and involvement of the Oxfam America regional office.
Going forward, Saving for Change must build on these strengths but also address some limitations. Although SfC is reaching a wide range of people with different financial backgrounds, few women in each village have joined the program. These low saturation levels stem from disinterest in the group organizing efforts, mistrust of group activities, and a perceived inability to save. Program staff will be able to increase outreach by assessing the current practices of information dissemination and program promotion. In addition, Oxfam regional staff must encourage field staff (the ―promotoras‖) to graduate groups so that they may have more time to devote to recruiting and training new groups. Since the promotoras’ individual strengths differ, Oxfam should encourage, whenever appropriate, the division of responsibilities among promotoras to capitalize on each individual’s strengths. Additionally, because savings and lending levels are low in El Salvador, especially when compared with SfC’s performance in other countries, Oxfam should consider offering business training to increase women’s confidence in starting businesses and expanding their current economic activities.
To measure the social and economic gains of members, the study employs the USAID framework for Assessing the Impact of Microenterprise Services (AIMS).1 AIMS identifies four pathways to sustainable change — material, cognitive, perceptual, and relational.2 Interestingly, although the program’s primary focus is economic, members did not report substantial material improvements. In fact there is no statistically significant difference between the financial status of members and non-members.3 Future research should focus on understanding the mechanisms that women use to generate income and more accurately measuring any changes in women’s economic status.
With regard to the other three pathways in the AIMS framework, the program is contributing to perceptual and cognitive changes. The women members overwhelmingly cite increased confidence in the future, improved self-worth, better friendships, greater ability to speak in front of others, and greater knowledge about financial and household management as benefits from joining the savings groups. Finally, gains along the AIMS relational pathway, which considers women’s relationships with others, are less evident than cognitive and perceptual changes, possibly because this pathway requires a transformation not only in the individual participating in the program, but also in her family and community. This type of change could thus entail a longer time horizon to manifest itself.
In conclusion, this study shows strong results with regard to program expansion in El Salvador. Poor rural women are successfully organizing and increasing their capacities in a social, economical and political context marked by a history of civil war and the unequal distribution of wealth.