I learned several techniques to finding simple and innovative solutions to poverty issues in Uganda. 1. Listen to people when they talk about their problems, be empathetic, and try to live life their way to understand the problem from their angle as well as your angle. 2. Create simple (I can't emphasize that enough!) solutions which are replicable and catchy- solutions which are transparent to even the least skilled user and that you can explain easily. 3. Make sure the solutions involve building human capital- empowering people with skills which they can master over time and apply in other areas of their lives to improve their lives.
One example of how I applied these three social innovation techniques involves three groups of grandmothers in three parishes in a rural area of Uganda. I was at the Eastern Ward Grandmother's Self-Help group's bi-monthly meeting when they brought out a large metal box with a lock on it and began passing out neatly organized blue passbooks. I was there to learn how the ladies conducted their meeting, which was always very revealing and inspiring.
"What was the box for?" I asked. The Eastern Ward group had one member, a prominent local, woman leader who was a field officer for CARE Int'l for that Sub-County. She had advised them to start collecting their own personal savings. After counseling her friends and relatives (everyone in the area was connected in a close social network) on savings techniques and the values of savings, the group decided to pool their funds to purchase the box, the personal passbooks (which kept track of their savings and loans payments), and a stamp.
"Why the stamp?" I asked. Nearly all of the women in the group are illiterate. The stamp represents 200 UGX (about .10 USD). The women can easily add up the amount they have saved by counting how many stamps they have.
"Does the stamp work for them?" Actually, yes! The women even feel a bit of competition as they see other women adding stamps to their books. They feel encouraged to add more stamps to their books. Also, most women can at least save 200 or 400 UGX at a time. So, the stamp makes them feel accomplished in saving even the smallest bit they have. It works perfectly as a reward mechanism. (I noticed that many women were discouraged to save because they did not feel that they had enough to save- as if the bit they had wasn't 'save-worthy' - the stamp changed that).
"When can the women take out from their savings?" Anytime they need to. However, they encouraged to add on to their savings.
"How can they ensure that their money is safe in this box?" Well they decided that the President, Secretary, and Treasurer (all ladies who were democratically voted into their positions by the group) should all hold a different key to a different lock on the box. The box could only be opened when all three members were present in one place to open their locks. This ensured checks and balances, and it has built a large amount of trust and cohesion in this group. They love one another.
This wh*** solution was so innovative, simple, and transparent. It got me excited. The women even told me they were pumped watching how excited I was about what they had accomplished. Previously I had talked to the Northern Ward Grandmothers Self-Help group about starting a bank account at the Kanungu Development Bank in town. Why hadn't they started an account? They told me they wanted to but the bank required a minimum balance to sustain the account. They also charged fees on certain transactions and when too many transactions occurred. The group could not sustain the fees and lost confidence in the bank. Most of all, the bank was simply intimidating. The paperwork was difficult to understand and impossible to read for most women. They had good reason to hesitate working with large institutions like federally regulated financial institutions. These banks were not in business to service the poorest of the poor, although they may wish to. Many of the women expressed to me their experiences in the past of relationships with authorities gone sour when processes were not explained to them properly, authorities failed their expectations, or authorities downright didn't deliver on promises for one reason or another. The group saving scheme just seemed to make sense!
After borrowing one of the Eastern Ward's passbooks I rushed over to the Northern Ward groups' president's house and then to meet the Bushura Grandmother's Self-Help Group. I explained the scheme and how Eastern Ward was already making great strides. The ladies were comforted by the fact that another group of women in similar life circ***tances were moving mountains with such a simple scheme. They examined the passbook, drew up a sample of it, and debated ideas of how the savings scheme would work. Members raised their hands to bring up concerns which others contemplated quietly. Women popped up excitedly with possible solutions. They adapted the concepts to their groups' needs. Then they voted on whether to adopt the scheme. They voted unanimously! It was amazing to watch them build trust and cohesion in their groups which would carry on into the effectiveness of their endeavors. They were learning incredibly valuable skills there that day! What skills you may ask?
1. Learning to design incentive systems which ensure cooperation, mutual interests, and positive results every time.
2. Learning group problem solving techniques such as: exploring options; resolving conflicts; identifying strengths in the group which may forward the objective; and building consensus and trust.
3. Learning personal effectiveness skills such as: respecting/caring about other's opinions and viewpoints; maintaining an open, non-judgmental mind; maintaining and fueling optimism; expressing one's opinions effectively; and inspiring others to action.
This was just in the decision making process and it does not include the skills they learned while carrying out this savings scheme.