Book Review: In their Own Hands by Jeff Ashe and Kyla Neilan

Posted by Terrence Isert, April 16, 2015

The idea that poor people and their families can save anything meaningful seems as ludicrous as the assumption by Muhammed Yunus in 1976 (Price of Dream) that small amounts of credit could help build poor families start businesses in Bangladesh. Jeff Ashe and Kyla Neilan’s In Their Own Hands demonstrates both. In fact, the poor can do so effectively, on their own and with little to no outside help – a departure from the approach of the microfinance movement. When NGOs train participants and then “get out of their way” — these rural and urban groups perform best. Women and men in each group manage themselves and their money more effectively than constant NGO-interaction or supervision.  The savings group movement enables not only the poor but the very poor to do what they could not do before: save first, then borrow from each other and continue the process over and over again without help from the outside.

Mr. Ashe’s chronicles his own personal journey from the Peace Corps volunteer forming solidarity groups in Guatemala to microfinance practitioner in Boston. He admits his own misgivings with the micro-lending movement (see this 2007 SSIR article here) and its microfinance institution-building efforts in the 1990s. He poignantly tells of his own sartorial discovery of these groups thriving in Nepal and his own efforts afterwards to launch them in some of the harshest climatic, economic and political environments across Africa and Latin America.

The novel is a compelling read for anyone interested in exploring a poverty-reduction model that is easily scalable, highly-efficient, low-cost to implement and teaches people and their communities to help themselves by putting the power of choice in their own hands.