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Planting Seeds, Growing Money

By Caroline Taylor, Program Associate Manager in Panama

The beginning of a new year is a time we look back and reflect, and look forward to new things ahead. This past December, GB Panama hosted its 3rd Annual Community Bank Empowerment Summit (CBES) in the Darién region, and we invited Community Bank leadership to join us. This summit was the last major activity GB Panama hosted before kicking off our 2017 brigade season, and, appropriately, it was as productive looking towards the new year as it was commemorative to everything the Community Banks had achieved in 2016.

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Kicking off the CBES with a group photo! The Summit was hosted at SENAFRONT, who GB also partners with as the security for many brigades.

What is a Community Bank?

Imagine your life without your debit or credit card. You could get by, but it would be much less convenient to use checks and constantly go to the ATM to withdraw money. Now imagine no access to ATMs, no checks, or not even having a savings account to securely hold your funds, let alone a bank to solicit a loan from if you needed it. How would you safely manage your money? How would you keep track of your expenses and income? This conundrum is a reality for many people in rural Panama who do not have access to financial services either because institutions do not exist within a reasonable distance, or because they face discrimination when trying to open bank accounts.

Global Brigades’ solution to this issue is work work communities to create a Community Bank. This is an autonomous organization that consists of at least 10 individuals living in the same community. These members serve voluntarily to run the Community Bank, are trained and supported by GB technicians, and work to build trust and solidarity within their community. Eventually, Community Bank leaders have enough experience and confidence in their financial management skills to not only lead their Community Bank completely independent of GB’s technical support, but also in the way that they can train future leaders to ensure continuation and growth. This is our goal as we work to eventually sustainably transition out of all GB partner communities.

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GB Staff Pablo Garron and Lisseth Hall energize participants as they close out the first day of the Summit.

Even more important than defining a Community Bank is understanding what they actually do for communities. These banks are the backbone of all brigade projects and key to the sustainability of GB’s Holistic Model. These financial institutions provide access to savings, loans, and financial education. They help fund development projects (like building latrines and showers, or allowing families to afford continued medical care after receiving a referral from GB medical clinic). They increase financial stability so families can protect their income and invest in things like their children’s education or home improvements. They support local businesses which helps grow the local economy, which directly ties in with our Business Brigades’ mission. To learn more about GB’s Community Bank system, view this video.

Seeds for Development

The 2016 CBES centered on strengthening our current Community Bank leadership through workshops and giving them a platform to share best practices with each other. Out of the 21 active Community Banks, 19 were represented at the Summit, and amounted to 70 participants.

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

The 2016 CBES theme was simple: Financial Leadership: Planting the Seeds for Sustainable Development. We know that investing in Community Banks, both financially through capitalizations funded by brigades and through knowledge imparted by GB technicians, is the best way to grow healthy, strong, independent communities.

We planted these seeds by first establishing Community Banks, and now we want to continue to fortify them so they grow into robust, enduring  institutions. Over the course of two and a half days we covered a range of workshops led by GB staff–bookkeeping, loan payment calculations, accounting practice, and participants heard from other local and governmental organizations about resources available to them outside of GB.

Our Community Bank leaders started out shy but quickly became active participants, asking questions, challenging GB staff on best practices, and coming together to support one another in sharing struggles and successes.

Looking Ahead

We have Community Banks that have been operating for two years and some that have only been up and running for two months, but one thing they all have in common is a singular focus–the future. Global Brigades is deeply committed to supporting that vision by promoting innovation, growth, and future leadership.

Innovation

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A Community Bank Member from Canglón shares the excel system used to manage their books. Canglón is the first to digitize their books, and won our Award for Innovation, as well as the Community Bank of the Year at the CBES in 2015.

Every year we recognize Community Banks for their creativity and innovation. Last year, the community of Canglón won the Award for Innovation for completely converting their bookkeeping to digital form via Microsoft Excel, making their records more secure,
transportable, and easy to track and edit.

This year, the community of Ipeti Guna took home the Award for Innovation for quite literally laying a new foundation for their Community Bank. Ipeti Guna dedicated energy and resources to construct a physical office for their Community Bank in their community, which now can be used for all Community Bank meetings and provides a secure and official space for their community bank to operate. Normally, committees host their meetings in a shared community space, and do not have a formal office or building. The example Ipeti Guna has set will hopefully open the door for others to formalize and legitimize their Community Bank in a similar manner. A physical designated office space has become a symbol of how significant the community bank is to the community and the Community Bank’s investment in its own longevity.

Stats to Celebrate

As in all development work, projects have obstacles and triumphs, and this is no different for developing Community Banks. This year, we were even more impressed by the successes of these institutions. Notably, 97% of Community Banks retain their members from when they were originally established. This retention rate reflects confidence in the Community Bank’s operations. Moreover, the average savings account balance of GB Community Bank members in Panama is $137.60, compared to the country’s national average savings account balance of just $40.00. The average loan request from  borrowers to GB Community Banks is $238.50, and we have seen an impressively low rate of defaulted loans or payment delinquency. In fact, in the month of August 2016, across all Community Banks, we had no missed loaned payments from any borrowers.

Leadership & Investing in Women

While GB aims to strategically engage in values and projects that empower women, we have also seen women organically step up to leadership roles in communities we partner with.

“Focusing on women in terms of empowerment and job creation is a proven method to bring entire families and communities out of poverty all over the world.” – Medea Nocentini

Over 90% of our Community Bank leadership and membership is made up of women. This means that through the Community Bank and the resources it provides, women are in command of their own financial empowerment and economic growth in their communities. As Community Banks grow and develop, we hope to provide more training and support to these leaders. This way, for generations to come, knowledge is shared and passed on and we continue to see strong, confident women in leadership in our partner communities.

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Gloris (age 5, in pink) and her sister Mayris (age 9) sit with stacks of Community Bank books recently inspected by GB Staff in the final CBES workshop. After curiously peeking through the books themselves, they watch and cheer among other Community Bank members during the Final Awards Ceremony. They are daughters of Canglón’s Community Bank President, Katy, and may one day be members themselves, if not leaders of their Community’s Bank.

How to Support Community Banks

If you want to get involved by supporting a Community Bank via fundraising and having the opportunity to work with a Community Bank in a GB partner community, join a Business Brigade! If there is not an active Business Chapter on your campus, we encourage you to realize your leadership potential and create one. We have a team of staff ready to support you in creating a chapter or joining an active one. Reach out to a GB Chapter Advisor for more information. For donation inquiries, please consider donating to chapter in your region, or contact admin@gloablbrigades.org.

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On the final day of the CBES, all members receive GB polos, with their community name embroidered on the sleeve. All Community Banks run on a volunteer basis, so these shirts help promote professionalism and encourage a high quality of management from all of our board members.

Global Brigades

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