Rebuilding After Tragedy

By Leo Tobias

Savings helps Filipinos like this sari-sari shop owner to survive difficult times.

Over the last four years, I worked on a project that created more than 923,000 active, voluntary savings accounts in Ethiopia, India and the Philippines, and put in the systems and processes to create many more. In the day in and day out of activities and measuring goals versus outcomes, it's easy to forget what that means. It takes a tragedy like Typhoon Haiyan to remind us that it matters.

When we see images of the destruction, we see the buildings and destroyed homes. If we look a little closer we realize that many in these rural communities are farmers. They have lost their crops, any prior harvest they've stored to consume or sell and any seeds or fertilizer they've saved for future plantings.

Many also supplement their primary income by having small stores (called sari-sari stores) attached to their homes. Sari-saris sell repackaged goods (crackers, bread and candy) or small caches of products (soap and shampoo) to their neighbors. These small stores are everywhere. Those in the path of the storm have lost all their stock except for what they can salvage from the ruins.

Prior to the storm, many Filipinos put their money in hidden places in their homes, such as under their mattress, or perhaps bought livestock to resell when cash is needed. Either way, the women and families that saved through informal mechanisms in their home probably lost it all.

In some small way, my heart soars that some Filipinos learned about safe, formal savings accounts in part because of Grameen Foundation’s work with CARD Bank in the Philippines. We worked to increase people’s access and convenience to their money while keeping it safe in a bank that they trusted.

Their small deposits add up. For many that have lost everything in the typhoon, these savings will mean food, medicine and shelter. Humanitarian aid will play its part in the immediate aftermath, but once the world's attention has gone, the families will pick up what's left and try to rebuild. Maybe the small savings will mean seeds to plant a small crop and stock for new stores. It may mean money for books or school lunches.

By no means does access to a formal savings account ensure that the lives of these savers will be easy. However, it may mean that the recovery won't take quite so many years or even generations. Hopefully access to formal savings account can give them a shorter journey out of poverty.

The importance of formal savings accounts to poor people goes beyond just money. It’s a safety net that won’t be washed away by storms and gives peace of mind in times of need. Creating more than 923,000 new savings accounts in four years is a great start – but we need more.

Leo Tobias is a program manager with Grameen Foundation's Mobile Financial Services team