06/22/2012 12:23 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

Savings Groups Support Resiliency in the Sahel

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

Kotien Diarra is 35-year-old and a mother of 10. She lives in a rural village called Fanafiecoro in Mali in Africa's drought-ridden Sahel region.

For the past four years, Kotien has been a member of a Saving for Change group, a village-level savings and loan program created through a partnership of Freedom from Hunger, Oxfam America and the Strømme Foundation. It establishes sustainable, cohesive groups that help their participants, mainly women, and their communities tackle complex social and financial issues.

Life is never easy in rural Mali, but Kotien has been able to use the savings she has accumulated to help her family weather difficult times and received an emergency loan when illness struck her family.

In Fanafiecoro, access to food is limited, even in the best of years. During the difficult times, between July and December, food is particularly scarce. Kotien laments the fact that her children do not eat as well as she did as a child because of seasonal fluctuations and the high price of food. "We have to eat filling foods that keep our stomachs full for a long time," she says.

Her husband is often sick and Kotien suffers from dizziness, the result of numerous bouts of malaria. "If one's husband is sick, it can ruin the lives of an entire family. It is important to keep my children healthy so they can take care of me when I am old." She uses her savings to provide food for her children in hope that this will keep them healthy. "Good food reinforces good health. Otherwise, sickness lasts longer and you won't go forward in life."

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon story for women in Mali, who face food scarcity on a daily basis. The catastrophic drought that has blighted the Sahel for the past two years is making conditions even worse for women like Kotien.

Exacerbating matters further, northern Mali has been ravaged by an inter-ethnic conflict that has been simmering since 2006. An estimated 320,000 people have fled their homes to seek refuge in other parts of Mali and in neighboring Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Algeria.

According to the World Food Programme, "This year's harvest was 25 percent lower than last year's and food prices are extremely high, particularly of millet and sorghum."

Western donors are deploying a wide range of strategies to address the Sahel emergency, including: emergency food distribution, cash transfers, rainwater harvesting projects, planting drought-resistant crops and establishing village granaries. Kotien's story illustrates how women in the Sahel are taking matters into their own hands by using their savings and taking small loans to help their families survive.

Access to financial services for the rural poor provides an important tool that can help women and their families be resilient in the face of drought and conflict and respond to health shocks and other uncertainties.

Savings groups provide an opportunity for women, who face immeasurable challenges, to save their money in a safe place and to both give and receive loans. Women also receive health, business and financial education that can help them protect the health of their families and improve the quality of their economic activities.

Freedom from Hunger's research indicates that while some women in these groups are taking small loans to start and nurture small businesses, others are taking loans to weather the myriad challenges of life, whether an unexpected health expense or simply making sure there is enough food.

This self-help approach provides a critical tool that helps women provide a better future for their families and achieve household-level food security.