#YoungAndPowerful through savings groups: Changing the lives of refugee youth

By Holly Christofferson
May 23, 2018

Adapted from Holly’s presentation at the Global Savings Group Conference convened by the SEEP Network (#SG2018) in Kigali, Rwanda.

Savings groups remind me of the “Little Engine That Could” — the storybook train engine that kept chugging along no matter what the obstacles or inclines.

For hundreds of years, perhaps longer, people have been coming together to pool their savings for mutual benefit. These simple forms of savings groups thrive in diverse cultures around the world.

In the last few decades, development organizations have worked to standardize the basic components of the saving and lending methodology, which has resulted in millions more people having access to financial services, such as the ability to save and borrow from locally owned and operated financial organizations.

Plan International has helped more than 1.3 million people around the world form and manage their own savings groups in order to save money, secure loans and access insurance products that are essential for household resilience. Especially in times of crisis, savings groups have been part of Plan’s response to natural disasters, such as in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Plan has also extended the savings group model to youth and children. Recently, Plan was faced with a challenge to serve Congolese youth, especially adolescent girls ages 12-17, living in refugee camps in Rwanda. Could savings groups work, even in this adverse environment, with girls, some of the most vulnerable members of the camp community?

Plan and the local camp leadership thought it could, and set out to design a youth savings group project for girls that would take into account some major challenges:

The environment: The project took place in two refugee camps, where Congolese refugees live in semipermanent housing and where violence, especially gender-based violence, is rampant. In addition, there is a general lack of trust. While mobile banking options were initially explored, it was decided that the funds could be kept in metal boxes secured with three locks in the office of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs. Group meetings were held in safe locations chosen by the members, often in girl-friendly spaces set up by the project. The project also closely engaged with local camp leadership, which helped to build trust and enhance security.

The population: Refugees are a highly transient population. In this case, the refugees were from Congo, living in camps hosted by Rwanda. The project designers intentionally recruited female camp residents who shared the refugees’ culture and language. Throughout the course of the project, many of the mentors were resettled to the U.S. Therefore, the project planned for frequent refresher trainings and recruitment of new mentors, who were paired with veteran mentors to get up to speed quickly.

The age group: The project targeted adolescent girls ages 12-17. Some of these children had spent their entire childhood in the camps, where child protection is an urgent priority. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that parents were concerned for their children’s safety. It was paramount that the project engage the parents through monthly community service work events, called “Umuganda,” as well as parent dialogue evenings to introduce the program, reassure parents of their children’s safety and emphasize the benefits of their participation in the program. Savings group meetings and events were scheduled on weekends and school holidays to avoid interfering with school. And, youth want to have fun, so the program organized recreational activities, contests, competitions and debates to motivate and inspire young people.

Gender: With a focus on girls, the project needed to do more rigorous engagement with parents. Home visits were used to reassure parents who were extra protective of their girls. Although all of the other components of this holistic program involved single-sex groups for girls and boys, the youth savings group component was different. A core principle of savings groups is voluntary self-selection of group members. Since saving together requires trust among the members to be successful, it was considered more important that girls chose members of their savings group that they could trust, regardless of gender, than to have girls-only groups.

Designing with these challenges in mind, the youth savings group program was very popular, not only among the girls and boys who participated, but also with parents and camp leaders who remarked that boys and girls in the camps had improved their behavior, financial discipline and savings goals. Parents only wished that it could be expanded to younger children.

Savings groups, as the little engine that could, keep breaking new ground with old ideas. Perhaps children under 12 are next.