Saving groups are intended to increase women’s resilience and financial assets, among other goals. A recent research looking at financial diaries uncovers surprising use of share-outs and opportunities for greater financial inclusion in Guatemala and El Salvador.
In collaboration with the Inter-American Development Bank and Oxfam America, Microfinance Opportunities implemented a year-long Financial Diaries study that tracked the economic behavior of women members of Savings for Change savings groups in El Salvador and Guatemala. The study aimed to identify what other financial services women participating in these savings groups need. The Diaries data provided an answer (see below!), but also provided fascinating insights into the way in which the women in the study earned their livings, interacted with other people in their households, spent their money, and used financial tools, including their savings groups.
One important finding was that a large majority of the women participating in the study received more of the money coming into their hands from other members of their household (intra-household transfers or IHTs), especially their husbands, than they did from an income generating activity. The extent to which the women who were dependent on IHTs controlled the money they received varied considerably ranging from regular transfers that the women controlled to transfers as and when the husband chose. This finding suggests that more can be done to address how women can exercise agency within their own households—savings groups alone are not enough. How this is done is a matter for further research into what has worked in other places and what the women themselves would like to see happen.
Despite the predominance of IHTs in the lives of the women, almost all of them earned money for themselves at some time during the study. These earnings were from a diversity of sources: for some the main source of income was from the sale of agricultural produce, for others it was a non-agricultural business, and for others still it was through employment. Many, like Eugenia, were entrepreneurs who earned income selling a variety of different goods.
The study found that the women largely saved at home or through their savings group. They made very little use of bank accounts or mobile money accounts. Furthermore, the Savings for Change groups were very successful in enabling the women to accumulate large sums of money. The average share out in El Salvador was about $90 while in Guatemala it was $170—far higher than the women’s average, weekly spending on household goods and services of $30.
But what the women did with these large sums was surprising—they tended to take them home, keep them there, and spend them down over time. This was especially the case in Guatemala where 85 percent of the time women deposited some or all of their share-out in their home savings in the week they received it (against 64 percent in El Salvador). The findings were surprising because data from savings groups in sub-Saharan Africa suggest that group members make far more active use of their share outs or re-invest the proceeds back into the next cycle. The data from Central America suggest that there is a potential role for a bank to provide the women participating in the Savings for Change group a safe place to save their share-out, out of the way of any temptation to spend it down over time.
This study was funded by the Multilateral Investment Fund at the Inter-American Development Bank. Oxfam America’s personnel on the ground in El Salvador and Guatemala played an invaluable role in orienting our research team to the research sites, including ensuring their safe passage in the early parts of the study. The processing and analysis of the data was a team MFO effort by Carolina Segovia, Eric Noggle, and Conor Gallagher.
By Guy Stuart, Executive Director, Microfinance Opportunities
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