How can VSLAs survive major crises and sustain? How do they support Resilience?
In this Peer Learning session, CARE shared how they have assessed women VSLA members' needs during the Covid-19 crisis and how they have adapted programming to meet these needs in Malawi, Nigeria and Haiti.
Vidhya SRIRAM welcomed the participants, and gave a brief explanation of the VSLA concept. Village Savings and Loan Associations are self-managed and self-selective savings groups of approximately twenty women. It is a trust-based system where women themselves are in charge of small loans, not MFIs or lenders. VSLAs are characterised by a very high repayment rate of 99 percent.
For CARE, VSLAs can be considered a lifeline for some 11.5 million VSLA members around the world. It is often the only available financial service provider for rural women where they are able to access saving, credit/loan and social services, and for their mobility outside the household. VSLAs also serve as a platform for service providers and NGOs, to provide technical assistance and extension training on health and nutrition, agriculture and more.
Sriram subsequently introduced her CARE colleagues as speakers in this session, and asked them questions for clarification on their CARE approach.
Muhamed BIZIMANA explained that the process that CARE Haiti undertook at the outset of COVID-19 was to rapidly assess the needs and priorities of women and girls in the VSLAs they work with. Of course, COVID also took them by surprise, but the country was affected rather late, so preventive measures could be immediately taken by the authorities and hence restrictions set in quite rapidly.
When asked how it had affected, and continues to affect the ability of VSLAs to continue with their activities, Bizimana said that for this purpose they conducted surveys. This carried some risk, as they usually would do this in person and now had to work with community facilitators and digital tools. They designed questionnaires to ask VSLA members about their needs for information, and did this with a strong gender-focus.
Clement BISAI pointed out that CARE Malawi had taken a different approach to get gender-focused information. One of the methodologies they used was working through community agents to learn how COVID was affecting their groups, and did so while adhering to preventive measures. They then developed specific interactive voice-recorded (IVR) messages to respond to the information needs they had identified. The IVR was used for informing, educating and communicating to the VSLA members as well as a data collection method. They disseminated the information through a clustered approach, in order to respond to the different needs of groups.
Maryam GARBA USMAN then highlighted the changes that CARE Nigeria had made in their programming, based on what they had learned from field assessments. These assessments had been carried out interactively with a gender and violence focus. They had then developed a mobile App to pass on the information. At country level, they tried to alleviate some of the effects of COVID-19 by directing grants to VSLA groups, using windows of opportunities for COVID response to women. They streamlined their existing information from projects with the survey results, aiming for instance at reproductive health, income generation, livelihood aspects, illegal child marriages, education and drop-outs. This was done in conjunction with government interventions, such as on adult learning, COVID response, awareness and social distancing.
Sriram then asked how the programmes will continue with the response activities. Bizimana answered that even before COVID there was already a food and security crisis in Haiti, exacerbated by a socio-political crisis. This meant, together with COVID, that they are now facing a three-layered crisis or conflict situation. However, the survey they had conducted at the beginning of COVID had helped them to understand how they can keep VSLA functions intact and respond to household needs, which will be continue post-COVID. He also explained about the traditional ways men are getting their information, through radio and group talk, while women rely more on one-to-one messaging. This is why CARE Haiti designed specific and tailored messages through village agents, radio and WhatsApp groups. Through the village agents they target the most vulnerable members, while a third approach works with identified groups who are already implementing some adaptations. They aim at small groups of approximately 10 members for loans and savings, keeping strictly to COVID, HIV and Cholera measures. Monitoring of shocks, stress and daily subsistence needs is done through the village agents.
Garba Usman explained that CARE Nigeria collects and disseminates information now through mobile communication. In this way, they can for instance link VSLA groups with microfinance Banks for group income generating activities. To get finance, the groups have been trained and are being monitored. They also provide links to other development actors and government for the economic empowerment of women through specific activities. They organise a national cluster for VSLA activities, to act as an umbrella and speak with one voice, also during elections. CARE’s role is to start the ball rolling, to help women identify their capabilities and capacities, and look for men to back them up and help them. At the moment, COVID restrictions are not too severe, so they can carry out most activities. Women have begun really to make changes in their communities and households.
Sriram continued by observing that both examples from Haiti and Nigeria revealed a multi-layer crisis, and that both CARE offices used their networks, and designed mobile tools to help prepare VSLA responses. Bisai contributed to this point, by explaining that CARE Malawi adapts its programming by using interactive voice-recorded messages to collect data and to disseminate information. In this way, CARE learned that COVID has certainly affected the savings capacity of VSLAs and their ability to pay back loans. This has shaped CARE’s recovery interventions, just like gender-based violence has shaped their gender-oriented VSLA activities. These are now integrated modules in the VSLA methodology. Similar to the CARE Nigeria example, CARE Malawi is now also linking VSLAs to MFIs and other service providers.
One question from the audience was that, if CARE would want to change one thing in their approach up to now, what would this be? Garba Usman responded that she would not like to change much, but rather do more of what they are already doing to help VSLA members with economy, food and livelihoods.
Bisai added that he would like to do more regarding personal protective equipment for the VSLAs, by increasing the loan fund through cash injections, in order to be able to provide the VSLAs with cash for particular needs. Bizimana would like to improve their cash and voucher system, and continue to strengthen the culture of saving. He would also like to change their inert reluctance to trust other local stakeholders. There is too much focus on reach and quality, and hence relying too much on CARE’s own teams on the ground.
Another member of the audience asked what had helped the VSLA village agents to adopt the new technologies. According to Garba Usman, the new technologies had helped to reach out to a larger group of individuals in the areas where they work. Moreover, through the needs assessment they had managed to improve their response, which in turn improved their decision-making and made them more cost-effective. Bizimana in that respect pointed to the fact that VSLAs and village agents were put at the centre to adopt new technologies and practices. They are the ones that engage in collective action with these technologies and digital tools, and are at the forefront to help these to be adopted and get to scale.
Sriram concluded by saying that these are nice takeaways from this session. The examples have illustrated how women are coping with the pandemic, how their needs have been identified, and how they can be engaged in the subsequent response. She also mentioned to be happy about the fact that CARE’s partners and VSLAs have started to develop and use a variety of new methodologies.
The models can be rapidly replicated, and together constitute a powerful platform to tap into. CARE will continue to evaluate how VSLA communities, and women in particular, are responding to the COVID-19 crisis.