Picture a village. Remote, undeveloped, overwhelmed by poverty and characterized by broken relationships. Where malnutrition, illness, and a small number of positive role models oftentimes leave children extremely vulnerable. And where the perpetual cycle of poverty cripples entire generations, decade after decade.
My grandson had a birthday recently. He’s two. He blew out candles, devoured cake and ice cream, and tore into presents. His favorite was a large bubble machine that floated huge translucent bubbles all over the room when he blew with all his might.
My work every day at World Relief involves birthdays. We mark them, celebrate them, prepare for them, and advocate for them. No, not birthdays with cake and bubbles, but birthdays with critical significance: the milestone of reaching a precious child’s fifth birthday.
The months of life in a mother’s womb and the first five years of a child’s life are the most critical. These are the years of rapid brain growth, physical, mental, and developmental growth, of early adaptation to our world of disease, of bonding with mother and family, and of discovering personhood, belonging, and identity. These are the “magic years” as described by author Selma Fraiberg. 
Too many children in our world never reach their fifth birthdays. In fact, nearly 6 million children under-five die every year.  They die prematurely from diarrhea, malnutrition, malaria or pneumonia; all of which are preventable deaths. Today, however, we know how to simply, cost-effectively and radically ensure that no child fails to reach his or her fifth birthday because of these causes.
Recognizing what nutrition experts call, a “Window of Opportunity” to promote nutrition and early development during the first 1000 days of life (counted from conception to two years), World Relief and the communities and churches we work through are seizing this opportunity to protect and nurture these precious children under the age of five. The interventions are basic:improved nutrition for mothers, infants, and children; prevention of life threatening pneumonia and diarrhea;and prevention and early treatment of malaria. Something as simple as hand-washing with soap can prevent persistent diarrhea that may eventually lead to severe dehydration, malnutrition and even death in a two-year old.
So what prevents this life-saving work from saving the lives of more children? How can we reach the millions of children needing this support throughout these early months and years? How can we impact behavior, especially where some cultural practices and a simple lack of knowledge can impede growth and development?
Long ago, a practical solution to reaching large masses of people was proposed by Jethro, a simple farmer whose son God chose to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land—Moses. Today, World Relief and many other NGOs and governments are using the same model Moses initiated…and we call them Care Groups.
Care Groups are an integral part of our Church Empowerment Zone (CEZ) model, pioneered in Rwanda and used across many of our programs in sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia and the Middle East. As a part of the process, small groups of 10-15 community members are formed, trust is built, information is shared, volunteers support one another, and then share their learnings with neighbors in their village. Complete community saturation is the goal and the means through which Care Groups can potentially reach every child under five to ensure they safely navigate their early years.
The implementation and impact results of this biblically-designed approach has a growing amount of evidence-based findings. The peer-to-peer approach has reached over 1.4 million households in more than 28 countries globally.  It is attracting public health experts, government ministries of health, and large development funders. And, it is at the very core of what we do here at World Relief.
World Relief’s Pieter Ernst first developed the concept of Care Groups in 1995. In his words:
About 3,500 years back in history, a skilled and educated leader by the name of Moses from a nomadic nation of around 3,000,000 people wanted, on his own, to judge and resolve all the social and many other problems they had as a result of living so close together. Interestingly, in spite of all his education and his close relationship with God, he was unable to see beyond his own experience, and God sent his less educated father-in-law, Jethro, from a distant country to visit and advise him about the advantages of Care Groups. He also gave him some important selection criteria for choosing the right volunteers, and gave him guidance on an accountability that included a supervision structure that would help secure sustainability. Therefore, in reality, Care Groups is a design structure that is 3,500 years old. It is God’s doing… 
With a little updating from Moses’ time, today we are pressing our technological age to do what works, no matter how simple it may be. Public health experts who studied eight Care Group projects found that as a result of the group teachings and outreach, under-five mortality decreased by 32%. And the cost per beneficiary per year for such impact? Only US $3-$8. 
Once scaling and saturation takes place in communities, the Care Group model allows communities to reach a critical tipping point that has the potential to transform entire nations. As a result, the Care group model becomes an efficient, inexpensive, self-sustaining vehicle for transformation.
It is a future that is bright, and filled with healthy, joyful children, celebrating many more birthdays to come.
 The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood (Fraiberg, Selma. Simon and Schuster.)
 CORE Group Conference for Global Health Practitioners, Silver Spring, MD October 16, 2014, Acceptance Speech by Pieter Ernst for Dory Storms Award
 Global Health: Science and Practice 2015, Vol 3, Issue 3, p. 370
Deborah Dortzbach is the Senior Program Advisor for World Relief. She has been involved in church-based HIV/AIDS prevention and care since the early 1990s. Prior to joining World Relief she directed MAP International's HIV/AIDS programs from 1990-1997. Doborah is the author, with W. Meredith Long, of The AIDS Crisis: What We Can Do (2006), as well as Kidnapped (1975), which chronicles her 1973 abduction with her husband by the Eritrean Liberation Front while they were working as missionaries.
Thank God for Women is a blog series rooted in gratitude for the strength, courage, and incredible capacity women demonstrate.
My mother was raised in a religious family. She taught me and my three siblings the basics of Christianity and taught us to love people around us. When my father died on the battlefield, my mother was there for us, uniting us as a family—loving and caring for each other even though we had hard times. As a single parent, it was never easy for my mother to provide everything but she made sure we had what we needed.
For many years, my mum worked endlessly to see that my siblings and I got the best education, all while looking for jobs that would sustain us as the needs of our family increased. We always had people from different backgrounds staying with us, and my siblings and I couldn’t understand why. As time went by I came to realize that my mum was always friendly and hospitable to everyone that came by. She wanted to give the best of her time to them.
After the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi occurred, my mother and I moved from Uganda back to Rwanda (where she was born) to get a more stable life—my siblings stayed behind to finish school. For 6 years, we went back and forth between Uganda and Rwanda to visit my siblings because I missed them. I once asked her why she had brought me alone along with her and left my siblings behind. She told me that “I love you so much and your siblings can’t be with us now, but I love them very much too.” It wasn’t long before we were reunited with them for good. In the meantime, my mother had found a job as a nurse at a clinic in Kigali. The school I went to was close to the clinic and after school, I would meet her at work and we would walk home together.
The nature of my mother's relationship with me was not only of a child and a parent but also of a friend and confidant. She encouraged me and made me feel important to her. This made me a very confident person.
Along the way, my mother found salvation and she found new meaning and purpose in life. Life as a single parent was never easy for her, she was constantly striving hard to make ends meet—the weight of that was often heavy. With Jesus in her life, she was so much happier and full of hope because she had found faith.
In 2002, my mother started working with World Relief Rwanda, which at the time was helping people to understand and accept living positively with individuals who were HIV positive. She endeavored to get to know and establish relationships with them, so they could trust her and accept her teachings. As a result of her counseling and spiritual mentoring, these individuals were able to reunite and live in harmony with other people, which wasn’t the case before because a stigma had isolated them. The more she worked and the longer she stayed with them, the more my mother got closer to the most vulnerable.
The more I saw my mum go every week to spend hours and days with suffering people, the more I learned from the stories she shared about her experience. She always reminded me that even if it doesn’t feel like you have enough to give to the most vulnerable, physically being with them, praying with them and socializing with them provided relief and community for them. For over 15 years, she has always been an advocate of the most vulnerable, and most especially for women in the community.
In 2007, I joined a program called Choose Life at my high school to receive training to then train my peers in the community. I was excited for this opportunity because I was able to reach out to my fellow youth, and because of the stories my mother would tell me about serving the most vulnerable.
I thank God for my mum and her lifelong impact. Because of her I went on to study Computer Science in college where my passion to serve the vulnerable grew stronger and led me to pursue my second degree in Community Work and Development. She has influenced me to pursue the work I am doing today.
Bob Allan Karemera is World Relief Rwanda Strategic Partnership Officer for more than 4 years. In his role, he coordinates relationships with with seven church partners and donors, connecting and engaging them in meaningful ways to WR Rwanda’s work. With a degree from Mount Kenya University in Kigali in Social Work and Administration, Bob further developed his passion for community work.
Thank God for Women is a blog series rooted in gratitude for the strength, courage, and incredible capacity women demonstrate.
After living and working in South Africa and Zambia, Courtney O’Connell came to World Relief in 2011. With a master’s degree in International Development from Eastern University, Courtney took on the role of Savings for Life (SFL) Senior Program Advisor, supporting program staff in the nine countries where World Relief implements SFL. She loves living in Rwanda, close to where Savings for Life is being implemented, and when she's not working, Courtney can be found running and biking throughout Rwanda's beautiful countryside. Recently, Cassidy Stratton, World Relief’s Marketing Coordinator, had an opportunity to catch up with Courtney to hear how she’s seen World Relief’s Savings for Life program empower women around the world:
Cassidy Stratton: You noted that you had already lived in Africa for 3 years. How did you specifically get connected to World Relief?
Courtney O’Connell: When I was job searching, I knew I wanted to do economic development in Africa with a Christian organization, and so I just went to some of the big names that I could immediately think of. World Relief actually had my current position posted, so without even thinking, or even proofreading, I submitted my resume. And, by the grace of God, I got it.
In my previous work overseas, I had seen organizations that claimed to be Christian on the website, and when I went to the field to see their programs, there was actually nothing Christian about them. And I was not sure if World Relief was like that since I had not seen them overseas. So I reached out to a professor of mine who was writing a book for which Stephen Bauman, the president of World Relief at that time, was submitting a chapter. She forwarded me Stephen’s chapter, which was all about working with the church and the heart and soul of what World Relief is about. As I read it, I said “Man, that sounds really good! And if they are who they say they are then I would totally be in..”
As I left the U.S., I thought, “I’m not selling my car until they prove that they are who they say they are.” Not that my car was nice; it was my Grandma’s hand-me-down Buick. Well, I moved to Rwanda in July of 2011. And I immediately, I fell in love with the way we do our work. Everything Stephen wrote about was true. There truly is a partnership with the local church, and the desire is to see the local church shine, not the organization. And to really infuse and integrate biblical beliefs into programs. To me, that was so unique. I was, and still am, thrilled to be a part of an organization that cares for the vulnerable in the way we do.
CS: Can you tell me more about your current position?
CO: I am the Savings for Life Senior Program Advisor—a program that forms community-based savings groups, where people pool their own money together in order to give loans to each other, charging interest. And after a set period of time—approximately 9 - 12 months—everyone takes back the savings they had put in, plus the portion of interest that they earned. So then it’s a very useful amount of money that a family can use to pay for school fees, invest in their farm, start a business, repair their house and the like. The best thing is that it is all their own money. It’s not like a loan from a bank. And when they go home at the end of this cycle for savings, they have in their hands probably the most amount of money that they’ve ever had at one time. It’s such an empowering program, and it’s great to be a part of it.
World Relief is running this program in 10 countries, and my role is to work alongside the program managers and field staff that are actually running the program. My role is to support them, help set strategies, prepare proposals, and make sure they have all of the tools to run a successful program. It’s cool for me because I get to be pretty close to the action, and I get to walk alongside the staff, the real heroes who are doing the work. Sometimes I feel like a cheerleader, cheering the programs along and helping teams to see what’s possible.
CS: What role have you seen women play in the Savings for Life Program?
CO: In most of the context where we’re working, the women are the glue of the society. They are the strong one’s in the family who make things happen. Unfortunately in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the traditional gender roles are that the men are the ones who make all of the important household financial decisions and are the controllers of the money. The women are the ones who are tasked to provide for the family on a daily basis, yet they don’t have a lot of authority or even their own money to make things happen.
We hear a lot of testimonies from women saying that it’s embarrassing because they have to go and—they use the word “beg”—their husband in order to get money to buy salt, buy oil, etc. in order to prepare food. If she can’t prepare food then she is not doing her gender role. But in order to do her role within the family, she actually has to ask her husband for help. So it’s this huge power dynamic struggle.
The Savings for Life program worldwide is 80% women. And we see that women are the ones that benefit from this. They say now they do not have to beg their husbands because they can provide for themselves. They have this glow about them—this empowerment, this hope—because they feel like they are now doing the role that they are designed to do. Not only that, but they are also starting new businesses and paying school fees for their children, all things that had only been a dream before.
CS: Can you recall a specific success story of a Savings for Life group?
CO: I remember visiting a savings group at the beginning of their savings cycle, and they said to me, “We’re just poor people and can’t save, so can you give us money?” And then I actually went to visit that same group 9 months later when they were having the day of distribution. They literally had a table mounted with money. You could just see the joy, the hope, the empowerment, the confidence beaming out of them. And they were able to say, “This is our money, and no one helped us do this.” To me, this is what we’re here for. That’s the success. When people say that we can set our own goals and no one else has to do it for us.
CS: Is there a specific woman that has impacted your work?
CO: Another story I want to tell you about is about a woman named Adele. She lives in Burundi, one of the poorest countries where we work. It’s a beautiful country and has a lot of resources, but it also has a lot of poverty and corruption. Adele lives way out in the middle of a village, and Savings for Life comes that way, and she decides that she is going to join. During her first cycle of savings, she was able to buy a goat. This was the very first goat that her family owned. A goat out in the village is first a huge status and second a long-term savings. She was so happy to buy this goat. And by the second cycle of the savings program, she was able to buy a cow. Her family was able to use this cow to plow their fields. The savings group was impacting multiple areas of her life.
A few years after she joined the savings group, the community staff member approached her and asked if she could be a volunteer for Savings for Life, and she accepted. She got trained on how to be a volunteer village agent, and then she went out and started other training groups. Now she’s working in her own community and neighboring communities, helping to teach other people about this program that has been so impacting for her.
CS: How have you seen the savings groups also serve as support groups?
CO: The social aspect of the groups really help. There was a woman in a savings group that became a widow. She ended up moving back to her family, but she had a lot of relational problems and it wasn’t healthy for her stay in the household that she grew up in. And so her savings group actually built her a house. It was their own initiative. World Relief was not part of it at all. It was that this group of women cared for each other so much that they saw their sister in need and did something about it.
To me that is just really powerful how the social aspect of the savings group helps the women walk alongside each other to achieve their goals financially. And to just have social capital and strength. It helps relationships go way deeper.
CS: Have there been any women in your life that have influenced your work and the way you engage with women around the world?
CO: The small group that I’m a part of. There are women here in Rwanda that we meet on a weekly basis to walk through life together. There are challenges of living abroad, and being away from your home culture, and sometimes there are just frustration of life, and to be with other people who you know want the best for you and care about you and ask how they can help you. I have been impacted by that and have found a lot of solidarity and strength from these women.
I liken that to the solidarity and strength other women can get from their Savings for Life group.
CS: Why do you Thank God for Women?
CO: I thank God for women because I see the strength that they provide for their families and the hope that they provide for their children. Women are the ones in the family that are able to change course. Their family might have been living in poverty for generations and generations, but if a woman has hope, and has the confidence and the empowerment, then she can change that course for the generations to come.
And I think the real strength in rural communities, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, are the women who are holding everything together, making changes for their families and their kids. I think women are the changemakers in our world.
Give today to create a better world for women.
The following post was written by Moses Ndahiro, Country Director for World Relief Rwanda.
A country as magnificent as it is complex. A place of breath-taking beauty, and of an unthinkably violent history. A marvelous land of a thousand hills, still haunted by an eerie morning fog that sits atop the horizon and whispers of horrors passed; a genocide that shook the world so deeply, it promised, “never again”.
It is a country unlike any other, where God’s creation is on display in all its splendor and diversity. The warmth and hospitality of a people striving to rebuild and rewrite their story. The hope of a history overcome, and of a nation reborn.
And it is a country where God is at work in powerful ways. Where people’s hearts and minds are being transformed through Christ. Where the Church is stepping into its rightful place as the hope of the world.
It is a story of light overcoming the darkness.
The Church established itself in Rwanda over 100 years ago, and today, more than 70% of the population is in a church building every week. How then, in 1994, did a genocide of such horrific proportions and unprecedented brutality take place? Volumes have been written on the underlying causes, on the immediate events leading up to the genocide and of the failure of the world to take heed of the warning signs. Little, however, was said of the failure of the Church to stand up and protect the vulnerable. Fortunately, that has changed. Today’s Church in Rwanda is quite different from the institutionalized Church of the past. It is vibrant, diverse, and growing. And step-by-step, it has begun to walk alongside its people in their journey from darkness and despair, towards hope and renewal.
World Relief first established its presence in Rwanda immediately following the genocide. Watching the international community respond with one-off emergency interventions, we became increasingly convinced that solutions needed to center on the resourcefulness and hearts of the local people, and that the Church had a unique role to play. Born out of that conviction, World Relief first pioneered its Church Empowerment Zone model in 2011. Founded on our strong belief that transformational change begins with the Church, we began teaching, mobilizing, and empowering local churches and their networks to serve the most vulnerable in their communities. Through sharing and building leadership capacity, we brought churches of all denominations together in one network to unite under a common curriculum and leadership development program, giving them the opportunity to wrestle with common problems, share resources, and join together in a common vision for their churches, families, and communities.
“We do not see one another as enemies anymore. Now we come together as brothers, bringing our strengths together. We are at peace.” – Pastor Museveni
Today, the Church Empowerment Zone model is unleashing the potential of hundreds of churches and communities across Rwanda, building a legacy of hope, generosity, and self-reliance that is sustaining progress. Local churches are no longer simply institutions for Sunday gatherings, but the epicenters of their communities—transforming hearts, minds, and attitudes. Rwanda is a vivid and timely reminder that there is more to religion than just turning up to church. It has revealed how essential it is for our faith to be strongly rooted in a holistic and meaningful understanding of the Gospel.
One pastor in Bushenge, Rwanda said, “Now we are caring for the poor and most vulnerable. We are creating love where the Devil was bringing hate and division. We are bringing the Kingdom of God down to Earth. Our families are in harmony. And a family in harmony will prosper in everything.”
Over the last five years, we have seen families reunited and health and nutrition outcomes improved. We have seen neighbors, siblings, spouses, children, and friends overcome their challenges and experience renewed and strengthened holistic relationships. We have seen the transformation of lives.
The story of the church in Rwanda is powerful and inspiring. But it is not the only nation where the church is catalyzing transformational change.
Now is the time for the U.S. church to join in this rebirth. We have a unique role to play in helping African churches increase their capacity, and they have much to teach us about what it means to truly trust in God. When we work together in harmony, uplifting one another, and placing God at the center of our partnership, we have the true potential to transform the lives of millions of vulnerable people.
Poverty runs deep in Rwanda. Even though this country has made signifiant social and economic progress over the last decade, the vast majority of Rwandans live in rural areas and struggle with severe financial hardships. Of the 87% of Rwandans who do not live in cities, 48.7% live below the national poverty line. Living in this stark reality in northwest Rwanda, Odette Hakuzayezu found herself miserable and hopeless. Invited to join a Savings for Life group by a World Relief trained volunteer, she agreed and had little idea of what it would bring. Group members meet regularly, pool their money together in savings accounts and create an emergency fund that can be used by someone in the group with unexpected, urgent needs. Saving what little she had over time added up and before Odette knew it, she was able to buy a sewing machine.
For Odette and many others like her, savings is more than just accumulating money - it’s restoration. Being a part of a Savings for Life group empowered Odette to use what she had in community with others to make a better future for herself and her family. She now has a tailoring business, a regular income and a way to help take care of her family of 5. Odette’s dignity and hope are restored and she’s gained encouraging friends, fellow savings group members, in the process.
In partnership with local churches around the globe, World Relief meets the tangible and spiritual needs of thousands of people like Odette each year through programs like Savings for Life. Simple financial trainings and accompanied Bible teachings lead to a restored life with limitless possibilities.
This month, we’re discovering what Savings for Life means to women and men in some of the most vulnerable places on earth. Check back with us again next week to hear more stories of hope – and stand with us today as we pursue lasting change through economic development.
“Before I joined the savings groups I was alone. I used to walk alone in the fields every day and I didn’t belong,” said Jocelyn, a business owner and mother from Rwanda. But since joining a Savings for Life group, Jocelyn has grown into a confident entrepreneur and member of a supportive community of women. Now, she goes to the market each day to sell her vegetables. The money she earns allows her to provide her eight children with medical insurance – and lend to other women who want to break free from poverty. In Rwanda, Savings for Life groups grow out of partnerships with the local church. Church leaders and volunteers create opportunities that help the most vulnerable develop economic stability in their families and communities. As pastors discover their church’s role in addressing the root causes of poverty, they are motivated to invite their most vulnerable neighbors into groups like Jocelyn’s.
Seventy-two percent of Rwanda’s 20,530 Savings for Life members are women, who are especially vulnerable to economic hardship. But in each meeting, women grow in independence and confidence as they accumulate savings and expand their financial knowledge. They encourage and celebrate one another with each new success.
Jocelyn’s first success came when she opened a produce shop with a loan from her savings group. Now that she can sustainably support her children, she is working to pay it back while lending money to others. “When we come together, we pray, then we open the box which has the money…and collect the social fund for loans,” Jocelyn said. The social fund protects the members from the shock of emergency costs. Small grants are given to cover unexpected medical procedures or home repairs.
Women in Savings for Life grow in deep friendship with one another. As they come out of isolation, they are welcomed into compassionate communities. “This savings group has united us because we pull together and solve problems as one group,” Jocelyn said. Today, Jocelyn is empowered to not only support her own family, but the economic growth and welfare of her entire community.
Check back with us throughout January to meet more heroes like Jocelyn. They’re leading their families and neighbors in the work of justice in some of the most vulnerable countries on earth. You can join the movement today at EmpowerAHero.org!
Twenty years ago this month, a systemic and insidious darkness took hold of Rwanda. Conflict arising from post-World War Western interests manifested itself in the genocidal slaughter of as many as 1 million people. The wound is healing, but it is also spreading, reaching across borders into sister nations Burundi and the Congo. Since 1995, we have been pursuing restoration in Rwanda and her neighboring countries. At first, our presence involved immediate emergency response. Today, we are seeking to restore lives so the most vulnerable individuals and communities are empowered physically, spiritually, relationally, economically.
President & CEO Stephan Bauman writes, “Reconciliation doesn’t take place on a stage during a ceremony or in a courtroom. It takes place one community at a time.” The more we empower the local Church in Rwanda to restore the most vulnerable, the more we realize our role in the equation. We are not the solution, nor are we the heroes.
These local church congregation members are heroes. A widow in their community had taken in her grandson after his mother remarried and his stepfather rejected him. Together, the church members built the widow and her grandson a new home.
They also began supporting the grandmother and grandson by providing resources that would help them thrive. They gave the boy a goat, which is a sustainable source of food and income.
The young boy (left) is also a hero. When the church was able to provide him with a second goat, instead of keeping it for himself, he gave one away to a friend whose family was also in need.
Heroes like these are supported, empowered and equipped through the local Church in Rwanda, a powerful force with the unprecedented ability to bring lasting transformation to the nation. This local Church places hope in the same Gospel and belongs to the same Body of Christ as churches around the world, even in our own neighborhood. We are intimately connected.
In 2 Corinthians 12:26, Paul speaks of the Body of Christ when he writes, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
Today, as we stand alongside our Rwandan brothers and sisters in remembrance of the genocide, churches across the world enter into the suffering of the local Church in Rwanda. But we also rejoice, because the story of Rwanda is full of "heroes who make their lives the solution by daily choosing forgiveness and grace instead of retribution and bitterness" (Stephan Bauman).
EMPOWER a HERO each month.
GIVE a GOAT to a vulnerable family through our Catalog of Hope.
(Images by Sean Sheridan)
Rwanda is a small country with one of the highest population densities in Africa (USAID, 2013). It is also one of the poorest countries, but it has made significant progress since the 1994 genocide that killed nearly 800,000 people (USAID, 2013). Poverty has dropped from 56.7 percent in 2006 to 44.9 percent in 2011, a developmental trend worth celebrating (USAID, 2013). Still, Rwanda’s poorest are often excluded from formal financial institutions and basic financial services because of fees and geographic barriers. Less than half of the population is formally banked. Lack of access to savings makes these people more vulnerable to economic shocks and it prevents personal investment for future development. Local churches in Rwanda are well-positioned to address poverty in their communities. They typically respond by providing food and money to the poor, a well-meaning effort that fails to address root causes of poverty. Often, these churches lack the skills and tools to be agents of transformational development, a holistic approach to poverty that involves sustainable changes in attitudes and behaviors. World Relief is responding by empowering the local church to deliver basic financial services and education to Rwanda’s poorest through the Savings for Life™ program, which makes access to savings and loans possible for the most poor and vulnerable. World Relief trains church volunteers who, in turn, train savings and credit groups in the communities. Special emphasis is placed on savings mobilization methods, Biblical stewardship, financial integrity, overcoming poverty, effective asset use and group government and management.
The impact of Savings for Life™ extends beyond economic empowerment as Savings Group members discover that they already have the resources necessary to advance their lives and those of their children. The community becomes more resilient as members help each other set aside money for emergencies. When World Relief concludes its work, these self-sustaining groups continue to meet and holistically transform the lives of members. Groups provide an opportunity for people to work together for a common financial goal and serve as a safe place of social support. World Relief has been implementing Savings for Life in Rwanda since 2010. There are currently 682 groups and 14,535 members across four districts.
Courtney O’Connell is World Relief’s Senior Technical Advisor for the Savings for Life program. She will be speaking at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute of Sustainable Microenterprise Development Program in a class titled “Savings Groups Post-Project: Evolution, Sustainability, Enrichment” Nov. 18-22, 2013 in Arusha, Tanzania. The following interview was conducted on Oct. 28, 2013.
Courtney, what is your history with transformational development, World Relief, and as Senior Technical Advisor for the Savings for Life program?
C: I joined World Relief in 2011 after having already lived in Africa for three years. My earliest work in Africa heightened my understanding of the need for transformational development to be truly holistic. I believe that just focusing on one area of life, physical, for example, ignores so many other areas of a person that need to be addressed: spiritual, social, emotional, financial. Joining World Relief’s Savings for Life team, then was a perfect fit for me as we try to address communities in a holistic way,
In which countries is this program currently being implemented?
C: We started our Savings for Life (SFL) program in Burundi in 2008, then expanded to Kenya and Rwanda in 2008 then to Malawi (2011), Congo (2012) and South Sudan (2013).
To date, do you know the total amount of Savings Groups and members?
C: Currently we have 104,857 members across all 6 countries.
Why does Savings for Life and the Savings Group model work so well? In other words, what about this model is different from other existing financial services and institutions offered either by countries or other NGOs?
C: The essence of the SFL program is this: groups of 10-25 community members come together and save their own money, use that common pool to make loans to each other charging an agreed upon interest rate. Then, after about 9 months, the members get back all the money they saved plus their share of the interest, or profit, the group made. This money that they’ve accumulated, generally $75-140, is usually the most amount of money these community members have ever had in their hands. And, it’s all theirs! The empowerment they take from this method is remarkable. Members are able to put children in school, buy health insurance for the very first time, invest in a business, or make tangible improvements on their homes. It’s such a huge change in a relatively short time.
Our approach is different from most other NGOs who do savings programs. First, we strive to deliver a high quality, technically sound savings program. It improves upon the indigenous forms of savings that have been present in rural communities for generations and generations. Most importantly, however, World Relief is working in and through the local church. Our desire is to see the church own this program and, towards that end, have volunteers from the church that help to form and train new savings groups. Groups pray with each other and support each other in times of need. We also have a Bible Study the groups can do to supplement their savings activities. In all these ways we’re trying to address the spiritual and the financial lives of the members.
Can you share a recent story from the Savings for Life program in Rwanda?
C: In the Nayamasheke district, Savings for Life empowered the Tuzamurane Savings Group (below) with the ability to address other areas of need in their lives. The members identified that each one needed a mattress at their house, as some were still sleeping on dirt floors. So they took turns buying mattresses from their collective savings until everyone had one. They were so proud of what they did, they bought matching ‘uniforms’ so that the entire community would know that they were empowered and could do fantastic things!
The world’s poorest have a tremendous capacity and willingness to save and protect assets when financial institutions cannot serve them. They save to meet social obligations, to prepare for emergencies, to start or expand small businesses and to respond to seasonal changes in cash flow. However, the lack of banks in rural areas often leads to high fees and unattainable minimum balance requirements, leaving savings vulnerable to loss and theft.
Since piloting the Savings for Life program in 2008, World Relief has empowered more than 100 thousand participants across six countries through the facilitation of effective and impactful community-based savings and credit groups. After years of testing and expanding, World Relief has developed a program that offers safe and reliable financial services to people who are otherwise excluded from formal banking institutions. Through regular savings and access to appropriately sized loans, group members can meet daily household needs and establish their own income-generating activities.
The Savings for Life program, like other World Relief initiatives, is also one of spiritual transformation. It is integral to the fulfillment of World Relief’s mission to “empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable.” Churches are the point of contact in communities where World Relief is present and pastors work to identify the most vulnerable within those communities. Church volunteers serve as field agents to mobilize and train the savings groups. Finally, World Relief promotes Savings groups because of its commitment to the holistic Gospel of Jesus Christ, a message that leads to transformation in every area of life.
Often, World Relief implements the Savings for Life program alongside other interventions. In Burundi, care group volunteers who bring life-saving health messages to more than 30 thousand mothers every month are invited to participate in Savings for Life groups. In Rwanda, Savings for Life is combined with leadership training so that church and community members can take initiative to meet the needs of vulnerable neighbors with their own resources. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, farmer group members involved in Savings for Life can buy better seeds and fertilizer with their own resources to produce greater yields.
Some of the most vulnerable in Kenya have also benefited from Savings for Life. Compared to other countries in East Africa, Kenya enjoys the largest, most diversified economy (USAID, 2013). Because of its location, the country serves as a place of transport and therefore plays a vital role for much of sub-Saharan Africa. However, decades of unjust governance have stunted economic development. About 60 percent of Kenyans live on US$2 or less per day (USAID, 2013). Kenyans facing poverty often lack access to the most basic financial services. Supplementing the life-impacting work of economic development, Savings for Life groups in Kenya educate members in managing their own savings. As savings accumulate, group members have access to appropriately-sized loans with which they can finance business or personal needs.
In 2011, a women’s group registered with World Relief in Kenya and Fadhili Trust to participate in a village savings and loan association in Ongata Rongai in Kajiado North. Group members save and lend their funds among themselves and also contribute to a social fund to assist with emergencies. When the group began to grow, the women registered with the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development to be recognized by other institutions and gain negotiation power for development. Now, they plan to begin using savings to purchase land for various group members. In the last two and a half years, not one of the members has defaulted on a loan or payment. This is the story of just one of several groups operating in seven regions across Kenya.
The groups also provide discipleship for members through regular Bible studies. World Relief believes that God’s restorative plan for mankind includes, among many things, character development with regard to stewardship, personal finance and attitude towards work. The goal is not wealth, but worship – pointing the most vulnerable to a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ and empowering them to live in a way that brings Him glory.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10
Nsabimana Aloys, Water Project Manager withEmily Haas, Church Partnership Coordinator share how Rwanda's Water Team celebrated World Water Day this year. Thanks to 20Liters, Mars Hill and our other partners who help make all this possible.
World Relief hosted their annual Walk for Water in Masaka Sector, Rwanda. Around 10 am, the gathering of 200 staff, local leaders, pastors and community members began at the church site. After hiking for about 40 minutes down to the swamp, they gathered water then hiked back up to the celebration site, singing and dancing as they went.
On the way back,they stopped at one home to demonstrate the water filtering of the freshly fetched water. Some commented that the water we gathered in the swamp looked clear and clean, but it is still not drinkable. Because it is stagnant water, it is even worse than the Nyabarongo River.
The family at the home gave news about how before they received the filter, they had much sickness in the home but now their members are healthy and are not falling sick due to unclean water.
For the rest of the celebration, staff distributed 100 jerry cans and 10 filters to participants, Water Project volunteers performed a skit to demonstrate the importance of clean water and how to manage filters, many gave testimonies about life before and after the filters, and leaders gave speeches about the importance of clean water.
In the various speeches, many gave thanks to all who contributed in this project. One local leader shared the important role his filter had played in his family. Before he received a filter, his children were sick every day as they used unfiltered rain and river water. Now, his family was no longer falling sick. He asked the blessing of the Lord on World Relief and all who were involved in bringing clean water.
Two beneficiaries shared their testimonies about how they would drink water directly from the river or swamp without stopping to boil it first. Now that they have filters, they use this clean water for everything, drinking, cooking, washing, food preparation, and in preparing drinks like juice and tea.
They are grateful to World Relief, Mars Hill, 20 Liters, and the Water Project volunteers.
It was a great time of celebration and all participants were happy for what God has done in these communities through World Relief, 20 Liters, and Mars Hill.