Working in villages in southern Thailand, Samart Sakawee has developed a novel savings group that not only creates new economic opportunities for its members, but also cultivates the central values of civil society–good governance, transparency, and participation–from the village-up.
The New Idea
Samart is using the community savings group, an established economic development tool, not only to provide income for rural villagers but also to address broader needs. He has modified the structure and management of the savings group to encourage greater civic responsibility and to guard against the corruption and mismanagement that have toppled savings groups in neighboring villages. Members obtain small loans to start individual initiatives, as they would in any savings group. In addition, though, a portion of the group's earnings is used to launch a community business. By training village women to assume management roles in both the savings group and the community business, Samart is enabling them to gain confidence, self-esteem, and business acumen. Because many women lack formal education, the training they receive in basic accounting, management, and marketing earns them respect from their spouses and communities and changes their lives dramatically. In addition to assuming responsibilities in their own community, they train women in neighboring villages to establish savings groups. Samart hopes that his model will eventually serve as an important stimulus for more effective environmental planning and resource management in rural villages as well.
Most Thais–78 percent of the country's sixty-two million people, according to UNDP estimates–live outside urban areas, many in agricultural villages with populations of one thousand or less. Characterized by poverty and lack of community planning, many villages depend on outside support in the form of government aid programs and assistance from international development organizations. While this support is well intentioned and may solve some important problems, it may also create or perpetuate dependence on outside help and stunt the growth of local solutions to local problems. The savings group, a development tool designed to encourage sustainability, was introduced in Thailand over a decade ago. It has enjoyed limited success, though, and many communities have seen the plan fail outright. In part, the management structure of the traditional savings group is to blame, as it lacks the necessary checks and balances to guard against mismanagement. Decisions typically rest with one person or a small group, infecting the savings group with corruption or embezzlement. It is true that some communities have dodged these pitfalls and have built strong savings groups. But Samart observes that the villagers see the savings group as an end in itself, yielding some economic benefits to the community, rather than as a powerful tool to foster community development and civic participation.Aside from low income, Thai villages harbor problems such as oppression and abuse of women. Precedent and tradition have taught village women to work tirelessly, stay out of decision-making, and submit to the men in their lives. Samart estimates that during harvest season, women in agricultural villages routinely work twenty-hour days, three hours longer than men. They cook, clean, plant, harvest, and perform a variety of other essential tasks that leave them exhausted at the day's end. Despite their vital role in the family, though, instances of domestic abuse are frequent and many husbands forbid their wives to leave the house to visit neighbors or attend social gatherings or ritual ceremonies. In public forums, women rarely speak out, as most lack confidence in their opinions and abilities to move beyond their role, carved out by past generations. As these communities are isolated, children grow up knowing only the social patterns they have witnessed in their immediate communities.
Samart sees the greatest opportunity for social change in the process, rather than the outcome, of establishing a successful savings group and community business. His strategy unfolds gradually: he identifies strong community members, primarily women, trains them to be managers and leaders, sparks their interest in governance and community planning, and lets them direct the process of setting village priorities and reworking family and community dynamics, especially with regard to gender relations. Using a savings group template of his own design, he encourages villages to assume ownership of a successful product. In Samart's experience, it may take two to three years to get the savings group up and running, plus another couple of years to launch the community business, but the results are both dramatic and lasting. Samart targets village women in the introductory phase, encouraging them to attend informal evening discussions and training sessions. The training series has two goals. The first is to identify leaders, women who will–with training and encouragement–emerge as strong members in the savings group and in the community. The second objective is skill building. Participants learn basic accounting skills, and begin discussions of management practices, consensus building, and priority setting. Samart presents such subjects as financial management simply and clearly. For example, instead of using jargon terms, such as "debit" and "credit," he relies on diagrams to illustrate the principles of cash flow. In establishing the community business, he helps villagers identify a marketable product, the production of which relies on local resources and methods. Through training and peer support, participants gain confidence to launch the savings group and community business. In the process, they assert themselves individually to their families and collectively to the community. Once Samart has identified and trained a core group of women, he guides the village through the process of establishing a community savings group, and later, building the community business. He presents a template, but encourages the group's leaders to consider priorities voiced by shareholders. While the percentages shift depending on community objectives, the savings group template comprises five core accounts, into which the group's earnings are allocated, typically on a monthly basis. The basic account structure, with typical initial percentage allocations, is as follows:_ Shareholder profits (50%) Profits from the community business are channeled to members through this account._ Community business fund (30%) Capital for developing the community business–including such expenses as marketing and equipment purchase–comes from this account._ Social welfare fund (10%) Depending on the priorities outlined by the community, money from this account may cover such expenses as health insurance for members, purchase of textbooks and uniforms for school children, care for the elderly and for pre-school children, and funeral costs._ Development and training fund (5%) Expenses such as staff training, including an exposure trip to an established savings group, are covered from this account. _ Civic outreach (5%) Although it initially constitutes a small percentage of the whole, Samart argues that this account will play a critical role both in developing long-term citizen participation in governance and in spreading his savings group model. Absent from the traditional savings group, the civic outreach fund is the mechanism by which Samart encourages villagers to reach beyond their own group. To date, shareholders in several villages have used this fund to help other communities establish a savings group or strengthen an existing one by providing interest-free loans to purchase land or set up an office. While the civic outreach fund seems small in terms of percentage of the whole, Samart notes that the percentage increases as the savings group and community business mature. Indeed, one savings group voted to reallocate sixty percent of profits totaling 700,000 baht (roughly $17,500) to the social welfare and civic outreach funds. Some of this money was given as grants, not loans, to flood victims in neighboring towns.Management of both the savings group and the community business is key. In Samart's model, management rests with a committee composed of up to nine representatives, elected by shareholders through an anonymous voting process. The terms are set for one-year to encourage a broader base of involvement in the management process and to support a new generation of leaders. While shareholders convene quarterly and for ad-hoc emergency meetings as needed, committee members meet weekly and work closely together. Responsibilities rotate monthly, enabling committee members to gain expertise in diverse roles, such as bookkeeping, collecting money from members, approving loans, and following up on loan repayments. Not only does cross training raise skill levels overall, it also prevents the corruption or speculation about corruption that has foiled other savings groups in the region. Samart is now working directly with eleven communities in southern Thailand, six of which take the model very seriously and have developed successful business ventures that turn, in some instances, a sizeable profit. One community–which makes, packages, and sells sesame and sugar palm snacks–has been successful in marketing its products nationally through an organic foods chain. The impact does not stop with these eleven communities, though. Increasingly, the model is attracting attention from national and international civil society organizations, community leaders, academics, and government officials. Several hundred guests visit Samart's village each year.
Samart grew up in southern Thailand, in a large family that included his mother and father, his father's second wife, and twelve children. His village was isolated and very poor, with few roads and no electricity. As they had no property of their own, his family harvested sugar from a neighboring palm plantation. Formal education–for male children only–was a secondary priority to the economic needs of the family; regardless, Samart passed the secondary school entrance examination and was accepted to a boarding school in the nearest city, Songkhla. Financially supported by three elder sisters, who earned money selling snacks in the village, Samart enrolled. Following secondary school, he traveled north to Bangkok to pursue his university education. This period proved lonely but rich in experiences and new ideas. In a visit Samart would remember as changing him completely, a cousin returning from a lengthy period of exile introduced Samart to political theory, and left him voraciously reading books about politics, distribution of wealth, and the role of the individual in society. After eight years in Bangkok, Samart returned to the south, where he took a position with Appropriate Technology Association of Thailand, a well-known national organization that sparks economic development by introducing technology innovations to villagers. First as a volunteer, and later as a staff member, Samart worked with villagers to design and install efficient, environmentally-friendly stoves to refine sugar, the village's staple product. The two-year project, which required that he apply concrete solutions to concrete problems, returned him from the realm of political theory to the world of village life and allowed him to closely observe community dynamics, especially the dynamics between men and women. With the perspective he had gained through experience and through reading, Samart saw a way to shift responsibilities in the village and to build a community of increased opportunities for both women and men.