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Reaching the Poorest Through Microfinance: Learning from Saving for Change Program in Mali

This study used secondary data to analyze the Saving for Change (SfC) program of Oxfam America in Mali. SfC uses a model of microfinance that is based on education and savings-led approach and self-help methodology. The program teaches the poorest women how to form and manage a group to handle savings and credit related needs. The group learns to systematically collect savings from its members; lend the money to its members with interest and keep a record of all transactions. SfC has created an oral recordkeeping system which is helpful for groups that have mostly or all illiterate women. The SfC women also learn about other social components such as malaria through their participation in the program. This study, however, focused only on the financial activities of the women. The secondary data analyzed in this study were collected by Oxfam America in two rounds of surveys that used mixed methods instruments. Both surveys were conducted in October and November, one in 2005 and the other in 2006. Most of the data collected from the surveys were quantitative. They were collected for Oxfam America's own purposes and only some of them were used for this study. The study used three aspects of outreach--depth, scope and worth to the user--as the framework to explore the extent to which SfC had reached the poorest women. Three overarching questions were constructed, one to explore each of these aspects of outreach. They were: Were the women served by SfC poorer than other women who were not served? Did the SfC women utilize the program benefits? Did the utilization of the program benefits vary based on the women's economic levels? Each overarching question also had a set of main and specific questions. Some key economic indicators such as the women's literacy and schooling at the individual level and the ratio of school age children in school, food security, assets and the ratio of income contributors at the household level, as well as select program benefits such as savings and loans were used for determining the main and specific questions. Various statistical tests including one-way ANOVA, paired samples t-tests and bivariate correlations were performed to answer those questions. Most of the results of the statistical tests did not provide a clear answer whether or not SfC reached the poorest of the poor. Out of the four indicators, three showed that the women reached by SfC were as poor as the women in the control group. The SfC women were statistically significantly better off, as measured by household assets, compared to the other women in the area. The results of the paired samples t-tests showed that the SfC women utilized the benefits offered by the program, and their utilization was higher in 2006 than in 2005. Except for a few instances, the women's utilization of the program benefits did not appear to have been influenced by their economic levels. None of their saving activities were significantly affected by their household economic levels. Their willingness to take loans also did not appear to be influenced by the difference in their household economic levels in a meaningful way. Although mixed, these findings adequately rejected the notion that Oxfam America had failed to reach the poorest of the poor. However, the results did not show that the women reached by SfC were the poorest. Future studies and collection of additional data may provide more conclusive findings about the level of poverty of the women reached by the program and the extent to which the very poorest benefitted equally from the services. Whether or not the results were statistically significant and all women were the poorest, the experiences gained by the women and the groups from their participation in SfC spoke directly to the core purpose of the program and to the economic benefits for the clients by any international standard. When their context was taken into consideration, poor women of one of the world's poorest countries in the villages where there are very few or no opportunities became economically active in the SfC program. The level of engagement of the women was an important step forward toward reducing poverty. Regardless of their economic levels, those poor women saved a remarkable amount of money; borrowed money from the group; repaid loans with interest; and, most importantly, managed a financial system as a group to serve their financial needs.