Timestamped overview

00:00 Developed savings groups in multiple countries globally.
05:48 Simplicity is key in empowering local organizations.
09:22 Informal finance dominates, banking rarely used. Grassroots finance.
12:36 Mali's poor use loans for survival and business.
14:46 Household chores, farming, trading enable independence.
18:32 Innovative approaches for community-specific challenges in savings.
20:45 Seek wisdom from those with experience and understanding.
26:44 Control over project staff selection is crucial.
30:09 Struggle to bridge ideas to service delivery.
32:35 Reframing language to empower and inspire change.
36:56 Reaching underserved populations through existing institutions is key.
40:29 Empower people to find their own answers.
41:22 Hard work, conditions, and like-minded people.

Key Quotes


Annie Bright [00:00:04]:
Hey, everybody.

Annie Bright [00:00:05]:
This is Annie Bright from The Journeys Project, and you're listening to the human rights interview series where I sat down with professionals and experts in human rights to better understand what human rights are and what human rights advocacy can look like in various professional fields. In this episode, I speak with Jeff Ash, a lifelong human rights advocate, professor, and director of his nonprofit, Grassroots Finance Action. Jeff talks about the power of traditional savings groups, the methodology for scaling programming in a sustainable way, and the importance of asking instead of answering.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:00:42]:
I'm Jeff Ash. Should I tell something about myself? Is that the idea?

Annie Bright [00:00:46]:
Yes, please.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:00:48]:
More than just my name. Okay. My name I've been involved in the process of grassroots development for over 50 years, starting with the Peace Corps project in Ecuador, empowering campesinos who were living like slaves on haciendas and got to land under the grand reform. So that was my first introduction to grassroots development. And the basic idea is this idea that I've maintained since then, which is people already have the answers. Just ask them to be a catalyst. And after that, I did research in Costa Rica on 860 villages to see their development needs. Found out that development needs that the campesinos were interested in did not correspond at all to the Ministry of Planning.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:01:32]:
The ministry of planning wanted an airport and a paved road to the port. Not one of the 860 energy indicate that was a priority. So, anyway, so they did the work and and the and the and the paper, of course. So after that, I got involved in helping launch the whole microcredit movement started in 1979 as the director of the Pisces project. We went to 14 countries, and among all the junk that we found, we found the solidarity group idea in El Salvador in 1980, and they, introduced this concept of a self selected group of 5 guarantees each of those loans. And as long as the group was up to date, they got more loans. So I introduced this model collection, and then we spread it all over the world. And I went did it more than 30 countries.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:02:22]:
That was kind of a blast, but then I saw that microcredit wasn't pushing the poor. And it was costing them a lot of money, and it wasn't satisfied. So I picked up the concept of savings groups through evaluating a program in Nepal, the women's empowerment program after that. Kim Wilson, your current professor, she invited me to India, and we looked at, self help groups, which is a kind of savings group hybrid because it's linked to external credit sometimes. And then, I went to Zimbabwe, looked at the care model, village the BSLA, village savings and lending associations in 2004, and then launched Save for Change, which was a savings group program in Mali, Senegal, Cambodia, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and working through local organizations to train 35,000 savings groups with 704,000 women in some 10,000 villages across these 5 countries. And now I got very intrigued with the notion that people are already saving based on traditions they developed much earlier, the various forms of what are called Roscas, Revolving Savings and Credit Associations now in Mexico as TANDAS. In West Africa is Susus, and Guatemala is Coochivalas. In Nepal is Tecutis, etcetera.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:03:43]:
Or a group of people come together and do say saving all by themselves with no intervention from any outside agency. Just do this as a tradition. And this is far more prevalent because while there's between 15 and 20,000,000 people part of savings groups, There are probably half a 1,000,000,000 who are part of these around the world. So we're very intrigued to find out what they can do and how we can leverage their capacity to train more of the same kind of groups for the day and a half or so where don't save any place. So that's my current focus and the current focus of organization I run called Grassroots Finance Action.

Annie Bright [00:04:22]:
The difference between a ROSCA, and this is more of an ASCA style savings group. Right? So a ROSCA, everybody puts in for the week, and then one person takes home the pot of money. And that allows them to have one lump sum of money, which can be valuable and something that otherwise that group's member might not have access to. Whereas in Aska, it's contributions every single week. And then after a certain period of time, the savings are dispersed along with whatever interest was accrued from various loans and interest and fees.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:04:50]:
Generally speaking, and ascots weren't invented by savings groups. Ascots already existed. People, of course, being smart had already come up with these solutions decades, 100 of years before, particularly in a place like Sierra Leone and other countries. Oscars are already in place. So we did is kind of took some of those ideas and along with the Roscoe ideas and more systematized them for better or for worse and to greatly accelerate their spread. So when I started with Save for Change in 2004, there's about a 1000000 numbers of savings groups around the world. And now there's probably somewhere around 20,000,000. Nobody really knows because nobody really tracks the process of self replications.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:05:35]:
So but I would say 15, 20,000,000.

Annie Bright [00:05:40]:
One thing that would be helpful is if you shared a little bit about how it's been possible for you to reach that number of people literally across the world.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:05:48]:
The key is dare to be simple. Less is more. Just so start with something that that's incredibly simple, easy to understand, quickly to train. Then the next step is to, figure out who to do it through and not to do it through a huge INGO international, other prophets such as CARE, Catholic Relief, and all those. But to identify strong local organizations and teach them the methodology and have their staff go out and form these groups. And we did that in Oxfam because Oxfam has regional offices, so we had a regional office in West Africa and, in Senegal. So that made it easy to work in Senegal and and Mali, I have a regional office in, Cambodia and a regional office in El Salvador. So as the director of community finance, Waxman was able to work through those regional office, and they had all their own connections and contacts.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:06:47]:
And so that choose the absolute strongest NGOs and provide them with funds to go out and train these groups. So simple methodology, leverage on the trusted, well considered local NGOs, provide them support for limited amount of time, and always with the idea in mind that these groups would be able to operate independently within a year or so. And so we find that although Arcfam hasn't supported these groups in, let's say, since 2013, most all the groups are continuing to function. Factor study just done showed that 79% are still functioning. And through peer to peer replication, the number per 100 is 94 groups out of a 100 are still surviving 9 years after they were trained and are on their own.

Annie Bright [00:07:40]:
That's a pretty phenomenal measurement of success.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:07:42]:
Yeah. And they're saving more, doing more stuff. So it's something that actually works and is sustainable, which is rare in the development business. Because usually things just collapse as soon as the outsiders leave, the whole thing collapses and you're back to square 1.

Annie Bright [00:07:59]:
Sure. It really goes to the validity of the principles that you lay out in your book, that the ability to replicate this and not keep the growth dependent on whatever organization is introducing it, it really makes it a pretty limitless scope of adoption.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:08:16]:
I think so. Of course, this is the reason why it's so difficult to get funding for it because it goes contrary to everything that let's say financial inclusion. You've got banks, have their own interests in making profits, and we've got microfinance institutions that are trying to cover their costs and make money for their investors and don't wanna reach the poor or down market because they can't make any money doing that. And it's a desire to make more money. You're, giving out loans that are too big that people can't pay back, then they default, and then they lose their land, their possessions, the like and harassed. And mobile money, which is great for moving money around, for sending digital finance, sending money here or there, and a few other functions, paying bills, delivering transfer payments, and like. But when it gets into lending, it's really another form of exploitative money lending, but only instead of person to person. And also with banks, and there's great notices of all these people are financially included.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:09:22]:
They have bank accounts, but huge number of them never use the the bank accounts are just on paper. So, really, the heavy lifting of financial institutions for the great majority of the population of the world occurs in the informal sector, either through RASKAS, ASCAS, savings group, and the like, or loans from family and friends and other informal schemes developed over centuries. All the financial institution stuff of which $50,000,000,000 a year, 1,000,000,000 and 1,000,000,000 of that in grants are poured into financial alternatives that institutional finance that really have little relevance for the vast majority of the population. And the other intriguing angles, let's say, the Roskis around, where there's a lot of savings groups, the Roskis are now hybrids. They have some characteristic of savings groups in them. So these ideas are percolating out through, markets, family, around the cooking fire, whatever, person to person. These ideas are spreading, rippling in, and all we're doing is with Grassroots Finance action, we think, is by providing a small statement, accelerating an already ongoing natural process and not trying to focus on what it is, but serve it as a catalyst to push it ahead.

Annie Bright [00:10:45]:
So typically when people are thinking about loans and savings, they're thinking about ginormous amounts of money because typically that experience does come with banks and a lot of money and a lot of resources. So in these savings groups and these solidarity groups, how much are the regular savings and how much are the loans?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:11:04]:
Typically, I can't even think of quite a range. I know I know in Mali, most started at 25¢ a week. But I think what we're seeing now, on average, I would say a dollar a week or $50 a year is pretty consistent. What is it's pretty much possible. And the average size loans the average size loans are project in Guatemala are $85, but in a lot of places, 30, $40 is the average size loan. These are far too small to make it worth the time of any kind of financial institution.

Annie Bright [00:11:36]:
It's but they're rather impactful. Of course, I guess I should ask. A lot of this discussion is around women leading, participating in these groups. Are men also involved in some countries or some communities?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:11:48]:
All depends on the model. Overall, all of the Save for Change work to program my rated with with women because if you get 1 or 2 men in a group, they dominate the group. The women don't learn leadership skills. And and as one Molly and woman who trained 12 groups on her own said, they know how to read and write. And the sooner or later, they'll steal from you, so we better run it ourselves. So yeah. But the the VSLA model, billings savings and lending association model spread by care, which is by far the biggest preparer savings groups are they have groups that are mixed. They're mostly women, but they had, let's say, 20% men or so.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:12:27]:
And, of course, Georgia was because some are men, some are women, some are both. You know, that's not a criteria.

Annie Bright [00:12:33]:
So when they get their payout, what is this money being used for?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:12:36]:
In a really poor, desperately poor country like Mali and where most everybody in the community is below the poverty line, which is pretty low anyway. They're using it often for food just to survive what they call the lean season to buy up some food and some seeds so that if they can plant the next season without going into debt to get seeds. We we have to get your seeds and get back half of the harvest for it. So that's the lowest level. But as you're ratchet up, people start putting it into businesses. And interestingly, when I analyzed the women's apartment program in the poll back in 2000 where I got introduced to this concept And based on a number of assets that a person packed, I stratified the sample into key tiles, 20% key tiles. And I compared how people use loads at different team tiles, how much they saved, and what they did with it. And at the bottom team tile, most of people use it for food, clothing, school fees, survival stuff, medical stuff.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:13:40]:
But as you ratchet up the economic pyramid towards the top, of course, that's not from our perspective, it'll still be below the bottom, but still, from their perspective, the top, they're using it to send their children to private schools instead of public schools, upgrading their housing and mobile for business.

Annie Bright [00:13:59]:
So investing in businesses they already had or starting Started businesses. Like, because it's just

Jeffrey Ashe [00:14:03]:
So it kind of depends on your economic strata where you're gonna end up using it. I think but Molly, we found most of it was used for food initially and others business, you know, for 400 25,000 women. So we had there are untold thousands of businesses started. It's below micro businesses into the nano business scale. Is Eva would kind of date to sell her boots head stew in the market, and wish she could fail to pay back her loan or buy a little bit of dried fish or, you know, petty trading stuff.

Annie Bright [00:14:33]:
Without the savings groups, what do these individuals do? What's the role of these individuals in their families or in their communities, you know, if they don't have access to some kind of what would be for other financial resources too small of loans?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:14:46]:
They they basically, live in their households and do the household chores. And they're like, and really do the incredibly hard labor of farming, and some do a little bit of petty trading, but this enables a whole lot more people to have their own income, and income is the first step to having independence. The same thing is my mother. My mother was a studio photographer, and she made money doing that. So that gave her independence from my rather dominant father. So, you know, it's the same stuff at whatever level. If you gotta have your own income, your own world, your own relationships that, gives you a measure of independence, and it's the first step of breaking loose from a patriarchal, structure in which most people are embedded.

Annie Bright [00:15:34]:
I think that brings up an important benefit of the groups that it's not just some type of financial security or financial opportunity they offer, but the benefits seem to extend pretty far beyond that, both in terms of empowerment and ability to to gain more independence. But also in your book, one of the things that you talked about was community projects that savings groups would contribute to. Is that pretty common for the groups that you've seen?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:15:58]:
There's 2 kinds of community projects. 1 is, you know, helping to build a maternity clinic or, you know, helping with the, basic infrastructure, you know, roads or wells and so on and so forth. But an awful lot of activities are to earn money for the group. So the group fund increases. In El Salvador, one of the most popular and most lucrative activities is that the the group sponsor horse races. And so they, do the promotion for the horse race, get everybody lined up, sell the food, do all of that, and make a pot of money doing it.

Annie Bright [00:16:34]:
Create their own market. Yeah.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:16:36]:
And a lot of people, let's say, they buy up plastic chairs and they rent them out for various kinds of weddings and that sort of events. But there's just lots and lots of collective projects, mainly singing, dancing, selling goods at various festivals. And sometimes this is a more important source of income to the group than the savings itself.

Annie Bright [00:16:57]:
Yeah. It seems like that solidarity is pretty important and pretty all encompassing.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:17:01]:
Yeah. I did a study in Mali, and we just what's the most important reason for this group. And first is solidarity. 2nd is just learning stuff, education. 3rd is saving. 4th is loans, and 5th is business in that order. And everybody thinks, you know, financial inclusion is all about money and loans and business. But, actually, this is kind of at the bottom.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:17:24]:
If the first things are solidarity and the mutual assistance is business, or microfinance sort of the 5th thing was the first thing.

Annie Bright [00:17:38]:
For the education aspect of that, how does that come about? So for example, a local NGO trains women in a community on how to run a savings group. And then how does an education program or educational training come out of that?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:17:55]:
Out of Bali through our partnership with Freedom Munger, which is another international NGO, they had a very simple pictographic way of teaching about malaria prevention and cure on little cards. And so the women just loved that. Most never gone to school. Those few that I had gone to school, there's absolutely nothing to read whatsoever in these villages. Not a word, not a scrap of newspaper, not nothing. I never saw a book or anything whatsoever. Some people were reeducated, but they forgot how to read after a while because there's nothing to read. No use for that whatsoever.

Annie Bright [00:18:32]:
You've shared before a few of the different creative ways of addressing some challenges for the creation and maintenance and management of savings groups in these communities. It's just so dependent on what they want or ask for. And one you just mentioned was the illustrated manual, which, you know, it seems like the reaction would be, oh, this community is illiterate. Maybe this isn't who we start with, or maybe we teach them how to read, but instead it's just meeting people where they are and so just make the manual image based. And then similarly, there's a story in the book about, Groupon Molly that verbally goes through and recites all of the rules and why they're there. And none of the rules are written down and it prevents group members from being alienated if they can't read. Are there any other creative responses to very real community specific challenges that you've been a part of, or that have particularly stuck with you?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:19:25]:
I like the oral record keeping system. I heard about that first in a program in in Niger whereby care where they developed an oral record keeping system. So we kinda perfected that. But reciting the rules, not the rules or just this little scrap of proof that nobody can read that's stuck someplace. But it's really interesting to see the research done recently, 9 years after groups were formed, that as the first thing in their meetings, the groups were still reciting old rules. So everybody understands the rules of the game.

Annie Bright [00:20:01]:
That's pretty rare at any level of financial institutions. I feel like I don't know at all the rules of the game for my pay.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:20:08]:
Think think of the the 5 pages of 8 point type about your do you agree to selling your children to Google or whatever it is? Sure. I approve. Did you read this?

Annie Bright [00:20:19]:
Yeah. This just don't maybe read this. Please.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:20:22]:
Sure. Stop this.

Annie Bright [00:20:24]:
It seems like there's organizations or sectors that are operating off of very different definitions of financial inclusion. And so you've mentioned having these informal savings groups included or considered in the conversation. How does that change the definition of financial inclusion, or how does it reframe how institutions and organizations should think about financial inclusion?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:20:45]:
It seems completely obvious. Why not go to where the wisdom is and where the experience is? Of course, that has nothing to do with the desires of banks, the investors into microfinance that wanna make a killing, or the geeks cooking up algorithms and whatever, who've never got off their butts and actually go to a village. They haven't a clue about what's going on, but they have all the power and the money and and the audience. And it really gets down to the basic idea that the the lack of faith, complete lack of faith and understanding and appreciation that the people that have been out there surviving for many 1000 of years have developed some pretty good ideas of how to do it, and they're just as smart as anybody else is. And so as we say, if they already have the answers, just ask. That's what I started doing when I was 25, when we came up with the compass in the leadership scheme, which brought peasant leaders together that were interested, and they came up with schemes to get the land underground before. And today, so now at 80, I'm doing the same basic thinking that I came up with when I was 25. So at least it's consistent

Annie Bright [00:21:54]:
You're onto something.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:21:56]:
Either that or I completely lack any imagine to come up with a new idea.

Annie Bright [00:22:00]:
Can't let the good idea go. So I do want to ask, we've talked about microfinance, traditional rotating savings groups, Roscos. There are other efforts or options in the space of financial inclusion, but where do these savings groups fit into that landscape in terms of who they can empower? Who are they actually helpful for? Does that have any limits? And then the extent of the support that they can provide. So where are those limitations, or what is the scope of this kind of savings group?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:22:32]:
I think the impact is in really poor communities. If you're actually hanging on by 1 or 2 fingernails, falling in the abyss of total destitution. This enables you to, step back a bit from the abyss and that have the luxury of actually thinking not of the next meal, but thinking ahead. And know that you're backed up by 15 or 20 other people that have the same objective. So it's an enormous tool. Nobody's being catapulted out of poverty by this alone, but it it doesn't allow you to step back from the abyss. And some people, to a certain degree, they they move ahead to prosper. The program that I evaluated in 2018 in Nepal started out with these savings groups, but it linked them to a credit union so that people could save in their groups.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:23:29]:
But they sent their money to the credit union. The credit union had their money, and they could take larger loans, longer term loans, retirement accounts, educational loans, housing loans. And so it kind of moved it from the short term aspect to long term. But this is rather rare. In most of bank linkage efforts, a bit disastrous because there's a complete mismatch in the objectives of the financial institution once the maximize profits. So they put the money out through the groups, and then somebody defaults on the group, and then the the bank takes all the resources, the group falls apart and collapses. So it takes a really unique institution, like the one I evaluated in Nepal, that could actually pull this off.

Annie Bright [00:24:15]:
So you hear this and you're like, oh my god. This is an amazing thing that's organically developing around the world, and they can be supported by external parties through introducing this methodology to more and more people to like, you're saying, plug in a little more energy, a little more resources into the natural spread that'll occur. But within those groups, in terms of the kind of the nitty gritty, is it common that people take the money or that people miss their payments? I mean, the groups have obviously extremely high survival rates beyond any type of external intervention. So I'm just curious what those issues look like in practice. Most of groups

Jeffrey Ashe [00:24:51]:
function pretty well, but there's kinds of late payment problem. But, generally, people are late for a while, but they pull it together when the money is gonna be distributed at the end, they pay off. They might be late for a while, but they pay off. But sometimes there's outright corruption or collusion or leak capture. Some of the groups have been taken over by these local school teachers, and the school teachers take over because they're the the authority figures. They become the leaders, and they give themselves the big loans, so they they leave the other women just kind of as pawns there. That happens sometimes. We had we had a program in Cambodia where the staff was corrupt.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:25:28]:
They took out loans for the many groups that they were training, and they didn't pay them back and the groups collapsed. So we had to cut all our front ties with that organization, start with new organizations. So a lot of stuff can happen. The real challenge for promotion is to create this this sense of mission and the sense that you're doing something really important supported by your peers and also supported by the external actors such as ourselves and our 28 local organization working within these 5 countries. Countries. I found a very high level, performance and virtually no corruption as far as we know. Of course, there could be stuff a lot of stuff we don't know anything about, but one home. But the real sense of people just working phenomenal event, weekends, evenings, so incredible dedication.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:26:19]:
And most of the people said compared to the other projects that this NGO was doing, they worked twice as hard and were at least twice as happy and fulfilled doing this work that for any other project that they're working on.

Annie Bright [00:26:33]:
It seems like there's a unique amount of ownership involved in this kind of project, which makes the work feel like it's actually yours. Not like you're just loaning yourself out to someone else's efforts.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:26:44]:
But there's some critical points. For example, let's say you're bringing in an NGO, and we found out very quickly that Oxfam or our local staff had to have the say about who is gonna be the project director, for example. Because in Mali, we had a team of 10 and a supervisor, and they were assigned an area of 300 villages and had 3 years to introduce state for change into those villages. But we had to have a real say in who was the director. And often you found that the person that they thought should be the director, usually the brother-in-law of the director who was a drunk and incompetent and, had absolutely no charisma and would be, you know, useless, was the one selected to do the job. So we had to control because if the the director was not the right director and the staff was not the right staff, he might as well just throw your money down the drain. So we found that out pretty quickly, and we had disastrous results to try to bring outsiders into the program. You may remember in the video from Molly, one guy was a field worker, a kind of animator.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:27:56]:
The other guy was a director. A guy by the name of Samayla Sogou. And this director, we actually hired because in the 1st couple years of the project, he showed that he was far better as a director of a unit in his local NGOs than anybody else. So we hired him and and he took on that role. These people that percolated up to the bottom, so there's kind of an internal success It's

Annie Bright [00:28:21]:
a creme de la creme situation. Yeah. Yeah.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:28:24]:
It there's a lot of organizational stuff. It sounds all very simple, but you'd have no idea about the law of discussions, the struggles, the

Annie Bright [00:28:34]:

Jeffrey Ashe [00:28:34]:
Fights to get to the broad expectations. And so we developed a system where you're always empowering. So you just everybody come together and say, oh, what a perfect project looks like. What are these characteristics? And they would okay. So how are we doing here, you know, on a 1 to 5 scale on each of these factor? Gee. We're only doing 2 as far as people being able to keep their own books or whatever it happened. And then we assign little work groups to say, okay. Come up with a plan to move yourself in 2 or 3 to 5.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:29:06]:
How would you do it? Then share those ideas and then say, okay. That's a great plan. So what are you gonna do tomorrow that's different than you did yesterday to implement these plans? And then how when I come back in 6 months, we know that those objectives have been achieved. So what you've done is they define what good is. They evaluate their own program. They develop ways to improve their program. They take action specifically to improve it. They developed the evaluation scheme.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:29:37]:
So once again, you're a catalyst of a process rather than the bringer of a package.

Annie Bright [00:29:43]:
It's nice to hear you lay out that process because again, it's one of those things that's, oh, of course, that, yeah, it's, it seems very simple. It seems very intuitive, but also having the steps laid out provides a very tangible roadmap. It seems like the resources that Grassroots Finance Action provides is the methodology. It's the principles and the practices. It's not just, here's an idea that we think is good. You should do it. Go forth. No.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:30:09]:
Yeah. It's it's it's it's it's it's it's it's it's it's it's that yanny chasm between cool ideas and what I call the the grimy business of service delivery. It's an ongoing struggle. Every day, there's something going on. Just like in our Guatemala project, there's people that are there with COVID, got rental problems. They don't have the right kind of personnel to go out and hustle, and it's a job of the Technica to support and encourage those and us to keep them going on. How many groups? How many people? How far are you meeting your objectives? You have to monitor exactly what's going on. Why are you falling behind? And what's going on here? How can you solve that problem?

Annie Bright [00:30:54]:
You know? Everything you're saying feels very intuitive. And so it is really interesting to me, one, that feels so natural. The people most directly affected are the most apt to tell you what solutions might be appropriate. But then of course, there's a contradiction that very often that's not how solutions are typically introduced, especially to big issues like poverty or some type of financial security.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:31:16]:
Sure. The assumption is that these poor people need our help. They haven't got any ideas themselves, and we have to provide them for them. And that's that's, of course, why virtually nothing works.

Annie Bright [00:31:28]:
Just kinda keeps coming back to that foundational tagline of they already know the answers, so just ask. I know you have principles that you've identified as important of both creating, maintaining the programming, but also its survival and expansion. What do you think is the most important thing that is maybe often overlooked that keeps Grassroots Finance Action, for example, very focused on asking questions and not answering them, especially as you become more and more of an expert and you see more and more, how do you balance that? Well, it's

Jeffrey Ashe [00:32:00]:
such a simple concept, but it's absolutely revolutionary because, you know, all the outsiders that are well educated and they're the experts, and they're looked on by the people you go into a village. Somebody wants some answers. And here's the experts, so give them the answers, and it works fine. But nobody bothers to ask people what how they've already dealt with these problems. So you got to really flip your idea from being a trainer to what I call an activist anthropologist. You find out stuff, but then you ask questions. Yeah. That's great.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:32:35]:
Hey. So does he want you wanna do? How would you do that? You know, something would you do first? What would you do second? I I remember in Cambodia, there was a master trainer who did a a great job, get a concept. Don't call people poor and disadvantaged Instead of calling them poor or destitute or, you know, incapable or illiterate or sick or needy. You just call them not rich yet. And it just totally changes the conversation. I I remember at Oxfam, I brought back all the photos from the groups, and everybody's, you know, smiling, working together. She said these photos are terrible. I can't raise any money off of them.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:33:23]:
They're so beautiful. Just seemed like they're happy and solving their own problems. And this is not going to work for us here. It's called development poor. There's a

Annie Bright [00:33:33]:
lot of life in your photos. They're really vibrant and colorful. In the book, you have a bunch. Are those your photos?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:33:40]:
Oh, yeah. I took all the photos soon. Right. I

Annie Bright [00:33:42]:
do this one. Yeah. They're great.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:33:44]:
And I do 2 kinds of photography. I do this kind of photography about this kind of stuff, which I call my socialist realist side. And then I do street photography and other kind of funky stuff, birds and beasts and leaves and people and street stuff.

Annie Bright [00:34:03]:
Yeah. It's kind of the anthropologist and you coming out in the normal life.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:34:07]:
Yeah. So perfect. Maybe for the introverted artistic, mildly social person.

Annie Bright [00:34:13]:
Someone's gonna hear that profile and think, I'm gonna take up photography.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:34:18]:
Same with sociology or, you know, anthropology. You know, you can ask all sorts of outrageous questions you'd never ask anybody, but, you know, you're doing a study, so you have given yourself permission to do something outrageous like this.

Annie Bright [00:34:34]:
One thing I'm I'm curious about is there's such a different measurement of success or a different expectation. Is that something that you feel, you know, trying to attract more funding, attract more proponents of this methodology?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:34:49]:
So I think it's a redefinition because so many people in the microfinance space say, oh my god. You can make so much money off of lending to poor people. It's really profitable enterprise, and you sort of redefine successes. Same scripts are enormously profitable model, but for poor people. And then they said, what's sustainability? Did you have a financial institution like a bank? Our microfinance just just has to go on year after year to year with those expenses, all of that, and and wait for you to find sustainability as the groups can operate on their own after a year or so. They'll continue going to self replicate. So it's a completely different definition that I have the ideas, you have the idea. They have the ideas, we have the ideas.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:35:36]:
We wanna make profit off of you. We want to be a catalyst so that you can go on and run yourself. Everybody says, oh, I wanna work myself out of a job. But, of course, nobody does because your income depends on it and your purpose in life and so on and so forth. Yeah. It seems like such an incredibly simple idea, but why are 1,000,000,000 of dollars going into all sorts of other stuff? It's a hard thing to sell, and it's because the people with money understand how a bank works. They understand algorithm, computers, and that's their expertise. That's what they wanna do.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:36:12]:
The people that run microfinance institutions really know how to do that, and I should know. I spent 20 years doing it. Never gave a thought to because we were just trying to run our institutions. So it's gotta step out of your reality and then to a different reality. And it starts with assuming that you don't have the answers, and answers are probably out there in the community. That's a really humbling difficult thing for most people to do.

Annie Bright [00:36:38]:
Ultimately, what do you envision as possible through the expansion of savings groups? So full adoption, what are some of the status changes of some of the challenges that we face right now? And then what do you think would be the next step from that foundation that these savings groups could create?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:36:56]:
Well, I think that, got well over a half a 1000000000 of people who are already part of Roscos, and there's over probably 3 times that number that could benefit from it. Instead of thinking that those people are gonna include it through banks, microfinance, digital finance, why not start with the institutions that are already reaching half a1000000000 and have them reach out into the because after all, they speak the language. Know the culture can develop something that's much more relevant to their needs than anybody else. If you look at all the publications Cgap, the the World Bank operation or everybody else, it's just nothing but digital. You know? And and some of the stuff is pretty good, but absolutely nobody other than just a tiny handful are thinking about, oh, they're doing all the way. They got all the great cool ideas. Why is it they've come up with all the ideas about how do you select somebody? That's the natural part of the Roscoe or savings group. How do you hold people accountable? Well, it's still the structure.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:38:01]:
What happens if you really wanna incorporate poor people? They come up with solutions. Oh, so 2 of you go together, do a half payment. Oh, you can save a little bit more. Well, you can do a double payment. Oh, let's say you need your money right away. You can negotiate it. Oh, so you're a new member not tested? We'll put you at the end of the line to get your payout. You know, so all these solutions, every solution that everybody's like me and other people sit around their offices cooking up have already been solved in every group, every place all over the world, a 1000000 times over.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:38:38]:
I'm currently reading this book. It's called God of Everything, a New History of Humanity by David Grabber and David Windrum. And the whole first chapter is how the Jesuits and others had entered into dialogue with the, quote, savages and find that they have very well refined ideas of how to run a good society and how the, quote, savages think that the French or wherever are completely backwards. And and it just shows the prejudice that we're right, and they're savages. We've got all the answers. We've got God. Then the next chapter goes into the brilliance of hunters and gatherers and the elaborate customs, traditions, and the sort of thing that they have. And so the whole book really reflects our philosophy that the wisdom is already out there.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:39:26]:
It's been there an awful long time, and maybe they have a lot of things to offer. We're we're finding things about, you know, the Native Americans that worked out systems over 100 of years of controlled burnings and this sort of thing and kept everything pretty much intact. And we're trying to put all the fires, and then when the fire comes, it burns everything down. So there's so much wisdom out there, same as agriculture, same with irrigation. You know, all of this stuff has been really perfected. So this is the basic philosophy here is that when we'll build on the wisdom that's already in place and going from there.

Annie Bright [00:40:01]:
Yep. Build on what already exists and deconstruct what we've tried to how we've intervened already. Okay. My, my last question, and then I'll let you maybe even, you know, enjoy some outside before we get this big blizzard for someone who has values that are aligned with, for example, the grassroots finance action mission. What is the recommendation of evaluating who you get involved with or what roles people should be looking out for? What do you recommend they do and start with?

Jeffrey Ashe [00:40:29]:
I think it's very simple, and I think it's the same mission that I gave to all my Brandeis students and Columbia students when we wrote how to choose the American dream. If you believe that people have the answers, why don't you find out their answers? I have a series of step by step study guides. So just ask these questions, and then I'd be happy to facilitate the discussion, and they could present it at GFA what they found, and they could come together as a group of people and exchange ideas and wisdom and write their own book or whatever. I learned the Peace Corps. The first thing is, for god's sake, don't do something. Just take a year to find out what's going on, and I did that sort of by accident because I didn't really think about it because I was taught at Berkeley that, you know, no course I took that campesinos are tradition. They'll never change and sort of thing. I was puzzled.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:41:22]:
I said, why is it that, yes, indeed, the people in the are pretty locked into what they're doing and not creative ideas, but their brothers and sisters and cousins have gone to the jungle where there's lots more resources, and they have all sorts of ideas. So it's not that it's baked into their brains, it's conditions. And it always relates to three conditions. What is the possibility that through your own hard work and efforts, you can actually get ahead. Your slice of the pie could be bigger or the pie is bigger, so you don't have to worry about taking away from somebody else to see you get to see your own efforts, you can move ahead within the context of a group of like minded people doing the same thing. Not a bunch of people that are trying to drag you down with the leadership of that group, and that's those three little elements are the essence of, any process of sustained change. And that's what a savings group is, or that's what a ROSCA is like, or a good ROSCA. That's what the company's leadership program was about.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:42:25]:
That's what the group part of microfinance was about. It's just simple ideas. And with that, if your compatriots want to do this, I'll send you along some guys that they can just go out and just ask, learn, write it down, exchange ideas, share it, then figure out where to go from there.

Annie Bright [00:42:48]:
That seems like the best of both worlds, effective in outcome and enjoyable in process.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:42:52]:
Yeah. It is. It's great. You just hang out and lurk around. I call that structured lurking.

Annie Bright [00:43:01]:
Thanks for being one of my first stops for lurking.

Jeffrey Ashe [00:43:04]:
It was really great fun. You know? I enjoyed the chance to pontificate.

Annie Bright [00:43:12]:
You can find the transcript of my conversation with Jeff along with links to the organizations and resources that were mentioned throughout the interview in the attached show notes. Thanks for listening.