Benjamin Hess is a CRS international development fellow living in Guatemala and working with savings-led microfinance programs. He writes a weekly (schedule permitting) blog post about microfinancing in Guatemala.
In August 2008, CRS Guatemala implemented a new savings-led microfinance project among persons living with HIV in and around Coatepeque, a city in southwestern Guatemala. CRS enjoys a strong partnership with a Catholic organization, Proyecto Vida (Project Life), that is providing services to those living with HIV/AIDS and those at risk of contracting the disease. For the savings-led component, however, we partnered with Gente Unida (United People), a network of persons living with HIV or AIDS who provide support and assistance to others living with the virus.
Later in August, we formed and trained two savings groups. The groups elected their leadership and were beginning to save by late September. Unfortunately, the project had to be suspended due to an estado de prevención (state of prevention) imposed by the government on Coatepeque due to high levels of violence and social unrest. The state of prevention banned the right to assemble, thereby preventing our groups from meeting. The authorities extended the order over the next few months.
We took advantage of the suspension of project activities to determine how we could strengthen the savings groups when the project was allowed to resume. Most savings groups are composed of members from a single community, which builds trust and makes it easier for members to attend meetings. In this project, however, the members came from different communities spread out over a large area. The savings groups held their meetings at the Proyecto Vida offices in Coatepeque, but the high costs of travel meant that they were spending far more than they would save. While the project enabled us to cover travel costs during the first few months, it would not be sustainable once the funding ended.
As a result, Dr. Flor Muñoz, the HIV projects coordinator for CRS Guatemala, suggested that we dissolve the current groups and form new savings groups from the self-help groups that Gente Unida had already organized. (Dissolving the two existing groups would involve distributing the accumulated savings back to each individual member.) There are currently six self-help groups that provide members a chance to come together, share experiences, and offer each other support. (In a country where those with HIV face stigmatization and discrimination, many people prefer to keep their status secret from friends, neighbors, and even family members.)
Since each self-help group has approximately ten members, we decided to combine two groups into one, for a total of three savings groups. This keeps the size of each group within the recommended number of 15-25 members. Each savings group will meet twice a month for three months. The savings project will cover the transportation costs for one of the monthly meetings; funds from another CRS-sponsored project will cover the other one, since the self-help groups will still meet once a month (right after the savings group meeting).
Recently, we learned the project will be able to resume. Over the next three months, the savings groups will receive training, elect their leadership, create their rules, and start saving. Once the project’s funding ends, groups will continue to meet once a month, with transportation costs covered through the project that funds the self-help groups. Ideally, over time, the members will help form savings groups in their own communities. We hope to offer leadership training that will empower them to take this important next step.
Next week, CRS has scheduled a training-of-trainers workshop for the Gente Unida staff and leadership. We’ll be using our new Learning Conversations guide with them, and the training will really be a hands-on simulation of the promotion and organization of savings groups. They will then be responsible for training the newly formed savings groups.
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