Perhaps nothing says more about Unbound’s culture of learning than our movement toward small, community-based groups within our programs. The families themselves taught us that when those who are systemically disadvantaged come together, great things can happen.
Local Unbound program staffs discovered early on that small peer groups were ideal for building trust and an environment of mutual support within a larger community. They found that the ideal size was about 25 members — large enough to feel empowered but small enough to maintain a sense of intimacy.
The first Unbound groups were composed of the mothers of sponsored children, who could be best relied upon to protect their children’s interests. While mothers groups are still the norm in most of Unbound’s programs, the model has been adapted in some places to include fathers, grandparents or other guardians.
Today, in addition to the emotional and moral support provided by the groups, many have implemented small loan programs for their members. This began in India in the early 2000s.
Dan Pearson, director of international programs, said the microfunding model in southcentral Asia was modified by Unbound staff to fit the organization’s commitment to local empowerment.
“The adaptation that the team in India made was making the group the bank rather than families borrowing from us,” Dan said. “That had a lot of advantages. It builds up capital better and also keeps us out of the business of debt collection. Members are accountable to one another.”
The Indian groups were a great success and Unbound started forming similar groups in other countries. But because of the varying cultural, governmental and logistical realities, it soon became evident that the Indian model would need to be adapted for each locale.
According to a 2013 survey, in Nairobi, Kenya, 85 percent of those taking small loans from Unbound mothers groups developed or boosted a small enterprise to support their families all or partly because of the loan. Today the groups in Kenya, as well as those in the Philippines, are moving toward becoming legally recognized cooperatives.
Meanwhile, in Latin America the groups have, so far, tended to place less emphasis on microfunding than on emotional support and group empowerment.
Yessenia Alfaro, Unbound’s program coordinator in Santa Ana, El Salvador, spoke about the importance of building a climate of trust and moral support among the families in the program.
“For us it’s important to create community,” Yessenia said. “The families need to have someone walk with them. There’s usually a big need to be listened to. And when there’s a community created with the mothers, there are many more people available to talk and support each other.”
The personal empowerment the women gain through participation in the small groups is supported by more than anecdotal evidence. According to a 2013 Unbound survey, 90 percent of mothers of sponsored children believe they have the power to change their family’s situation. That level of confidence in a person who has lived her entire life in a system designed to keep her down is both amazing and inspiring.
Throughout the Unbound world, small groups are building community, providing safe spaces and helping families work toward economic stability. On a daily basis, they demonstrate the wisdom of solidarity.
“When women are together,” Dan said, “they are empowered as a group because they can share their concerns and draw strength from each other. They have a collective voice, which is stronger and louder.”
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