The Colombo Women’s Co-operative Bank; Development in Action

A Case Study

There aren’t too many  case studies which document self development; this one comes form a visit I made along with students from The Sixth Form to the offices of the Womens Co-operative bank in Seevalipura, Colombo in February 2015

A note on Seevalipura

Seevalipura is the biggest underserved settlement in Colombo. It houses 300 families and roughly 15000 people. The settlement which is on the eastern edge of Colombo dates back to the 1930’s when migrants from rural areas came to Colombo to work in the expanding industries around the capital. Government provision of housing could not keep pace with population growth and so informal squatter settlement grew up. In !984/6 Seevalipura was declared a special project area and electricity and water supply were brought in. Even so the area has remained poor; very much a working class neighbourhood with low income and poverty the main threat to local people.

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The Bank

The women’s co-operative movement was started in 1989. There was no provision for the urban poor to have access to bank loans so when a family wanted or need money they had to go to money lenders who would charge very high interest rates (commonly 20% per month). In Seevalipura the locals, headed up initially by a local community leader Nandasiri Gamage Invernter, decided that they wanted rid of the money lenders and and set up the Sri Lanka Women’s Development Services Cooperative Society Ltd (or Women’s Co-op for short). The idea was that it would be a self help organisation owned and run for and by women.

Its mission is quite simple. It is to to “put the resources, ideas and support of its own members to raise their socio-economic and cultural status on the principle of self-help and mutual help without depending on never ending chain of government and external support.”  The focus is on mutual trust; saving together and working together as a community.

Groups

The organisational structure is quite simple; it is based on small self-help and mutual help groups with a membership ranging from five to fifteen women living in same neighborhood. Each group member must agree to save a minimum amount per week although they can save more if the wish. Each group elects a management group which meets regularly to discuss loans, membership applications and so on.

Each group is affilated to the CO-OP bank via a centralised organisational structure

At the base are the members; they belong to local groups. Local groups are organised into clusters or Bank Branches made up of around 10 or so local groups. A bank branch will have about 250 members. Each has an elected board of directors and each branch enjoys a high degree of autonomy within constraints laid down by the banks own by laws which are overseen by the National Executive Council which sits at the top of the pyramid.

How it works

The way it works is quite simple; women can belong to the co-op by depositing savings with the co-op. That buys her shares. Once she is a shareholder she can apply for a loan which she will then repay at low rates of interest (between 1 and 2 % per month). The are few restrictions on the type of loan and the loanee decides and agrees how much to pay back and when. These are small scale loans which focus on individual household needs.

Common reasons for taking a loan:

  • funeral expenses up to Rs 100,000
  • marriage expenses
  • education costs
  • emergency payment of bills for example hospital bills
  • housing improvement ( makes up about 20% of all loans)
  • small business development (makes up 15% of all loans)

Why women?

2 reasons:

  1. men are not good at saving
  2. women are more likely to pay the money back

BUT there are other important impacts if you like

  • the focus is on giving women a voice in the decision making process in the community
  • encourages women to develop a sense of social responsibility
  • developing skills in business, banking, organisation and people management
  • improvement of women’s sense of self worth

Facts and figures

  • from its early inception when it had just 3 groups and a few members the Women’s Coop now has over 85,000 members in 8000 groups
  • to date it has collected over 52 million rupees in savings and loaned out 58 million rupees

Summary

All over Colombo there are examples of the successful empowerment of local communities via the mobilisation of women and I may well do something on this next up.

This may be  just one example its importance can’t be underestimated not just to the development process, however you define it, but also to the emergence of a confident independent and business savvy group of women more than capable of driving the development process forward; and don’t underestimate its value for people who would otherwise have no access to commercial loans.

Further information

You can get a lot more detail by going direct to the Coop Bank website and trawling through each of its layers of information

  1. The Women’s Coop website is:  http://www.slwb.org/WB/
  2. A hundred stories of Women’s Bank members:  http://www.caledonia.org.uk/srilanka.htm
  3. This is also worth a look:  http://www.gdrc.org/icm/inspire/womenbank.ht

If you want to know more you can contact me  by mail; philbrighty@gmail.com

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