In the wake of global anti-racism movements and a growing awareness of the challenges within international development, there’s a pressing need for a change in approach. Many efforts in the field of development, despite good intentions, often fall short of addressing the root causes of economic inequality and social exclusion, as highlighted by feminist economists associated with the International Association of Feminist Economics (IAFFE).
However, Ghana provides a fascinating example of an ancient financial system known as “Susu,” which offers a unique model of grassroots development with the potential to significantly reduce poverty and promote economic equity. Men and women from diverse socio-economic backgrounds come together in Susu membership organizations, where the focus is on self-help and cooperation from within the community.
Susu stands out due to its local, bottom-up approach, free from external intervention. Unlike conventional shareholder models, which often accumulate power and wealth among a privileged few, Susu thrives on principles of community-based collaboration. Drawing from Guyanese economist CY Thomas’s convergence theory, which highlights the benefits of localized consumption, the Ghana Susu system liberates local economies from the constraints of foreign-led development. It presents an alternative to the cycle of dependency and should be recognized as a viable approach to decolonizing development.
At its core, Susu operates as a Rotating Savings and Credit Association (ROSCA). Members pool their financial resources within their communities, creating a self-managed fund. A recent study conducted by Caroline Shenaz Hossein and Samuel Kwaku Bonsu, titled “Situating the West African System of Collectivity: A Study of Susu Institutions in Ghana’s Urban Centers,” interviewed 46 Susu members across various cities in Ghana. Their findings shed light on how Susu quietly challenges the existing global system and why it deserves attention as a potent tool for decolonizing development.
The name “Susu” itself encapsulates the essence of this system, translating to “little by little” and “to plan” in Ghana’s Twi language. Members contribute fixed sums of money regularly, which are then aggregated and subsequently distributed to each member in a rotation over a predefined period. This pooled capital allows members to accumulate funds, making it easier for them to embark on business ventures, make significant purchases, meet educational expenses, fund life events such as weddings and funerals, and address various financial needs. Although the fundamental structure remains consistent, each Susu group may have its own unique set of rules.
However, Susu is about more than just money. Its fundamental purpose revolves around the pooling and sharing of resources for the collective good, rather than individual profit. Susu systems typically operate democratically, with members voting and electing board representatives responsible for making decisions on behalf of the group. This practice is deeply rooted in African theories of community sustainability.
Historical evidence indicates that Susu predates colonialism, yet its existence outside the dominant capital-centric market system has resulted in its relative obscurity and underrecognition. Even discussions of “alternative” financial systems often overlook Susu or ROSCA as the origins of inclusive financial development. The adaptability and flexibility of these financial systems are what make them particularly valuable. While they adhere to structured approaches for fund management, they remain agile and capable of swift adaptations based on the evolving needs of members through consensus-based decision-making. Susu institutions also foster strong social bonds through mutual aid and democratic choices.
In contrast to elite commercial banks, Susu systems have proven to be far more successful in addressing the financial needs of vulnerable members of society. They serve as a bridge to formal finance, effectively addressing economic inequality and supporting individuals excluded from mainstream financial services. The informal nature of the system provides a significant advantage, as commercial banks have struggled for decades to connect with the informal economy, often due to members not meeting formal criteria. Susu members understand the advantages of their systems over traditional banks. Instead of pursuing profit, they prioritize solidarity, building enduring friendships and finding a sense of purpose in strong social bonds.
Participating in a Susu is not just a financial choice but a political act of resistance against the homogenizing forces of global corporatized capitalism. It represents a departure from the conventional capitalist-socialist binary, promoting non-profit economic activities that can be categorized as post-capitalist. This people-centric economy has deep historical roots in Africa and challenges the dominant narrative that local development must conform to Western standards.
Susu members offer a powerful counter-narrative to the contemporary pursuit of profit. They emphasize the potential for communities to engage in non-profit economic activities centered around sharing and collective well-being, rather than individual wealth. These member-owned and cooperative systems defy the corporatization of the economy, offering an inspiring case study demonstrating how individuals can take charge of their development. With their roots in community-based economies, they provide a genuine alternative to the single-minded pursuit of economic profits.
In the present global landscape, it is imperative to reevaluate financial development, with grassroots rotating fund systems like Susu at the forefront. These systems have not only survived but thrived in a contemporary neoliberal context, showcasing the resilience of indigenous approaches that predate Western economic theories. The mere existence of Susu challenges the capitalist assertion that there is no alternative to their business model. It’s time to acknowledge and give due credit to these financial cooperatives that have withstood the test of time.
Reviving Susu in a Struggling Economy: A Way Forward
The principles of Susu offer valuable lessons for economies facing challenges and inequality. By reviving and embracing the Susu model, struggling economies can promote financial inclusion, community cooperation, and economic empowerment.
- Local Empowerment: Susu operates at the local level, ensuring that wealth and power are distributed within the community. By reintroducing this system, struggling economies can empower local communities to take charge of their economic development.
- Inclusive Financial Services: Susu serves as an inclusive financial system, providing support to vulnerable individuals who are often excluded from traditional banking. This inclusivity can address economic inequality within struggling economies.
- Community Building: Susu encourages community bonding and mutual aid. Reviving Susu means fostering stronger social ties and a sense of purpose among community members. This can lead to a more resilient and cohesive society.
- Non-Profit Economic Activities: Embracing Susu means promoting economic activities focused on collective well-being, rather than individual profit. This shift can help struggling economies move away from profit-driven motives and prioritize social and community welfare.
- Resistance to Corporatized Capitalism: Participating in Susu is an act of resistance against the homogenizing forces of global corporatized capitalism. Reviving Susu can be a powerful step towards breaking free from dependency on external financial systems.
The Susu model holds the potential to offer struggling economies a path to economic empowerment, inclusivity, and community resilience. By reimagining financial development with Susu at its core, these economies can challenge existing paradigms and promote a more equitable and people-focused approach to development.
By Moses Desire Kouyo