File Photo: NSDFU members with ACTogether Staff pose for a group photo during the mobilization of community savings groups in Kasokoso settlement under the KJE-NOWO project

What you need to know: We (NSDFU) have been successful in mobilizing and organizing communities for a span of over 15 years now, and we’ve built a solid foundation consisting of viable grassroots community groups that have undergone close supervision, and support in terms of financial, leadership training, and formal registration. I believe this is a reasonable justification that can bring us to the table with the government to work collectively.

For decades slums have been areas of great concern to both governments and development agencies. This is so because these areas have experienced a slow development resulting from poor policies, exclusion, and consistent neglect from governments to deliberately design interventions to address an array of challenges hampering the development of these settlements. This is not good news because these locations are home to a large number of people, particularly young people, who, if not provided for, will cause many countries to lose out on their potential talented workforce, aggravate poverty, and cause political upheaval.

The good news is that there is a flurry of activities among community members to alleviate some of these prevailing issues. The National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda, for example, is a social movement affiliated with Slum Dwellers International (SDI) that has continued to spread a developmental approach known as community savings, in which city dwellers come together to collect resources to meet their social needs, foster financial inclusion, and address social barriers for poor urban dwellers. This approach is socially constructed and is open and common in areas dilapidated and facing the wrath of social, and economic fragility.

This movement has spread the concept of community savings across eleven cities/municipalities in Uganda (Arua, Kampala (five divisions), Mbarara, Kabale, Wakiso, Mbale, and Jinja) to help people collectively fight poverty, and improve their livelihoods and wellbeing.

In this interview, I spoke to Najjuko Diana to help us understand more about the notion of community savings, and how for the last 25 years the national slum dwellers federation has been doing its work. Diana is a member of this amazing and progressive movement and she’s the national treasurer of the movement. She has vast experience of over 15 years, working and coordinating community-savings groups both at the regional and national levels.

Photo: Ms. Najjuko Diana, the NSDFU national treasurer during the interview at the sanitation facility in Kisenyi III central division Kampala

In this interview, Diana gives an outlook of what community-savings groups are, how they operate, prospects and challenges, plus how governments and other development bodies can intervene to strengthen this culture of community savings as a viable path for urban poor to revitalize and enhance their livelihoods to end the unjust world of inequality, slow development, and exclusion, especially for people in the informal urban settlements.

Interviewer: Diana, help us understand the concept of community-savings groups, and why is it a viable strategy for informal settlements?

Diana: In our context as the National Slum-dwellers Federation of Uganda, the community-savings group is a platform that brings together various community members to save money as little as 100shillings. This collected money is used by members, to cater to future needs while also meeting their collective needs as a group. These community members are specifically coming from slum areas that are faced with a lot of challenges such as poverty, healthcare crisis, lack of education, water, housing, and land tenure among others. These challenges are partly exacerbated when there is a lack of social networking, where people are not taking important steps to galvanize power and resources to address these challenges.

The community-savings groups, in this case, play an intermediary role to wield collective bargaining and voices by engaging relevant stakeholders to take important and urgent steps in addressing the many challenges community members are grappling with. These community-savings groups are therefore essential in sustaining community livelihoods through saving, helping community members to come together with a collective voice to lobby for good governance, and resources from local and city governments which is very important to addressing challenges city dwellers continuously face.

Interviewer: How do community-savings groups impact the development of communities?

Diana: As I noted earlier, savings groups bridge a sense of community, where people adopt the belief that an injury to one is an injury to all. For example, many of the groups that we have established under NSDFU, have gone further to lobby for government programs to ensure that they reach the most beneficiaries. Our groups have continued to lobby different programs for example Kampala Capital City Authority’s program called community-driven development (CDD) fund that provide funds to community groups that are fully organized. Some groups have benefited and have been able to enhance their ventures through these funds. Secondly, the community groups I call communal industries because we have seen a number of them establishing ventures that are productive and employ most of the community members. Many groups have ventured into liquid soap, shoemaking, etc. and we are seeing employment opportunities coming up, a continuous flow of trade, and others have gone further to identify young people and give them the required skills for them to open up their opportunities. This is because there are collective and coordinated activities happening among these community-savings groups.

Interviewer: We hear savings, what kind of saving and saving for what for that matter?

Diana: Under NSDFU we have for long engaged and firmly encouraged groups to categorize their savings. The first principle under our philosophy is to save for a purpose. Members/groups have to have a vision of why they are saving. So, we have categorically put it that there should be personal savings where members save their money that they can withdraw at a given cycle, fixed savings where members save for a goal, this can be a business, housing, land, etc and this category is not less than a year before you withdraw it. Groups have what we call a social fund that responds to emergencies that have happened to group members. So, these are some of the categories and the purposes why community members come together to save. It’s uplifting their lives to have a new human face.

Interviewer: Over time, there have been instances of community-savings group funds being misappropriated and community members have lost trust in this concept of savings groups. How is NSDFU doing it differently to address this challenge? Are there any safeguards in place to ensure the protection of community savings?

Diana: National slum dwellers we have taken steps to train and give the capacity to group leaders. We have encouraged groups to institute savings committees. These committees among others work hand in hand with the group treasurer to ensure that the money is fully recorded and banked.  These groups have signatories carefully selected and trusted by group members.

We have also encouraged groups to always before their next sit to save to task the group treasurer to present a bank deposit slip clearly showing the amount of money that was saved for the last sitting. NSDFU strongly doesn’t accept our saving groups keeping money in the boxes. This is a very risky move as group savings, can easily be swindled by some negative elements. For a long time, we have encouraged and supported groups to open bank accounts. Not only do these banks keep the money safely but they also have weavers/opportunities, they support groups and women to receive loans at very low-interest rates. Secondly, for groups to receive government funds, they have to be organized like having bank accounts where to deposit the money. So, these are some of the opportunities that we avail to our groups to adopt this safe system that keeps their savings safe and also helps them acquire other benefits.

Interviewer: Are the savings groups solely focused on saving, or are they also pursuing other projects that have a positive impact on the members of the group?

Diana: The focus is not solely on savings; our objective is to ensure that groups delve into productive projects

Interviewer: What is the government’s position, and what specific programs does it have in place to assist community-savings groups?

Diana: The government has tried to introduce programs to intervene, however, the roll-out of these funds such as CDD, youth funds, NAADS, and Emyooga has greatly been associated with irregularities. Cases of fund misappropriation and favoritism have been so paramount, that the desired objectives of these programs have failed simply because of these flaws. Government should further take due diligence before supporting communal groups and extensive training on how beneficiaries can utilize this support for sustainability. Government can also work with existing organizations such as National Slum dwellers of Uganda and others to extend this capacity and collaborate in areas of mobilization and knowledge sharing.

Interviewer: Individuals and organizations have had difficulty gaining access to government programs and you have talked about the government collaborating with NSDFU. In your opinion, how can the government collaborate more closely with the NSDFU, to ensure that numerous community groups benefit directly from its programs?

Diana: We’ve been successful in mobilizing and organizing communities for a span of over 15 years now, and we’ve built a solid foundation consisting of viable grassroots community groups that have undergone close supervision, and support in terms of financial knowledge, leadership training, and formal registration. I believe this is a reasonable justification that can bring us to the table with the government to work collectively.

One dimension of working with the government can be cooperating to identify and mobilize community groups to participate and benefit from these programs. Our groups have mobilized and organized over the last five to six years, so the odds of a positive return on investment are higher. We have seen several examples where the government has been duped by people who form transitory groups that disintegrate after receiving funding. If we worked with the government, I can assure you that this would not be the case. We’ve kept our groups going even when we didn’t have any money; they aren’t impromptu groups; they’re completely organic and have strategic goals.

Interviewer: What are the obstacles that continue to stymie the growth of community groups? And what can be done to help them develop more?

Diana: Community groups are situated in informal communities, and they hardly ever even obtain enough money to supplement their little savings. Many civil society organizations have endeavored, but they lack sufficient funding. For example, the resources that were intended for two groups are ultimately distributed to more than 10 groups, which is not favorable for the groups to carry out and advance their long-term strategic objectives.  Secondly, there is a greater need to provide the community groups with the skills necessary to successfully lobby for funding from a wide range of sources, including the government and development partners. Although the NSDFU supports these groups, they must follow their own unrestricted direction. Furthermore, we can’t always assist these groups, so expanding this capability will provide the groundwork for the community groups to seek more support.

Finally, I believe we need to establish a framework whereby community groups follow an industrial trajectory. We want these groups to pursue their initiatives with an industrial mindset, accompanied by assistance; we also want to see local groups evolve into community industries which is a more sustainable pathway that would boost employment, drive growth, and ensure that dwellers in informal urban settlements receive an equal share of income and wealth.

Thank you, Diana, for this insightful interview.

Welcome and thanks for giving me this opportunity…….Okwegatta G’emaanyi