Business: Banking: Much gratitude to the Caribbean for Boxhand, Susu and Partner:

— We now have humane systems of economic cooperation

October 25, 2021 – By Caroline Shenaz Hossein

Box-hand. Susu. Esusu. Meeting Turn. Sol. Lodge. Partner. These are some of the vernacular names for systems of banking co-operatives that Caribbean people have been doing for more than a century—these systems are known by academics as rotating savings and credit associations, or ROSCAs for short.

ROSCAs aren’t new to many of us with Caribbean born parents living in the diaspora. My great-grandmother, Maude Gittens, was a street caterer who lived  in Sangre Grande, Trinidad. But she was also a well-known Susu “Banker Lady.” Susu is a local name for a ROSCA. It’s the same name used in Ghana, West Africa — which in fact, is an original source for these co-ops. And Susu can be found among the diaspora outside of Africa and the Caribbean, so in your towns and cities.           

For the past 14 years, I’ve been studying and writing on development, financial exclusion and co-operative economies specifically for the African diaspora. My own experience of seeing how people used Boxhand and Susu left an impression on the way I viewed localized development.  And because of this experience I spent many years interviewing hundreds of women co-operators who call themselves the Banker Ladies—and they adhere to the same principles as other co-operatives. These co-operators actually represent thousands more, because each Banker Lady represents the members of her group, and normally these groups range between 10 to 80 members. Haiti’s Sol has some of the largest memberships I have seen in the Caribbean of more than 100 members.

Caribbean people in Toronto and Montreal have been quietly building banking co-ops like those in the Caribbean. While it is true that ROSCAs are hidden forms of co-operatives that racialized people practice all over the world, these banking co-ops are revered in the Caribbean, and within Caribbean families everywhere. But over the years, the Banker Ladies I met in Canada who are originally from Jamaica, Guyana, St. Kitts, Barbados, Trinidad, Grenada, Haiti and The Bahamas, told me that they keep these coop systems out of sight because they fear reprisals for their informal co-op banks.

What are ROSCAs?
The historian Maurice St. Pierre wrote a lot about saving clubs among the freed African-Guyanese to buy land, and to create their own affairs. Indo-Guyanese too have a rich tradition of Chit systems that were recognized by law since the mid-1800s. African and Indian people have contributed to the ROSCA system in the Caribbean, and they also bring these banking co-ops when they travel to new lands.

ROSCAS are at the very core of what we know as the solidarity social economy—the human economy. They are defined as self-managed voluntary co-ops, and they are deeply embedded in civil society. ROSCAs are usually described in a cultural way, for example—Somali Hagbad, Jamaican Partner, Indonesian Arisan, Ghana Susu, Guyanese Boxhand, Chinese Hui, Equub for Ethiopians and Juntas for Peruvians. And the list goes on.

When Caribbean people emigrate, they organize ROSCAs like many other people from around the world. It’s a way to help each other financially. The women who manage these co-ops are also concerned about social supports and kindness, wanting to give people a place to belong.

ROSCAs are usually made up of people who share the same socio-economic class and who are alienated from goods and services. ROSCA members decide how their co-ops will be structured. Members contribute a “hand” — a fixed sum — on a weekly or monthly basis to a pool, and that lump sum of money is collected and then shared with a member.

It’s time to give credit to Caribbean women co-operators

My work on solidarity economies is correcting the erasure of the contributions of Caribbean people in Canada, as well as Guyana, Haiti, Trinidad, Grenada and Jamaica. I teach my students at the University of Toronto Scarborough about co-operatives, non-profits, social enterprises and mutual aid so they can go into the world and make business inclusive. I make sure to make it clear about the major impact of the Caribbean Banker Ladies in making banking people focused.

It is only now as I wrestle with revising my book that I recognize that we should be crediting and thanking Caribbean people for their contributions to the co-operative sector. While doing my doctoral research in the early 2000s, it was Guyanese economist CY Thomas’ convergence theory that urges us to focus on local needs rather than extractive market economics that teaches us that local people mattered in financial economies.

The idea of cooperating in the economy, and pooling our goods is one way to counter the World Systems pressure. So many Caribbean scholars such as Eric Williams, Oliver Cox and  CY Thomas to name a few have been showing the exclusionary and biased economic systems that favoured the metropole and pit everyday people against one another. We have a debt to the Caribbean that goes beyond its scholars, and that crucially foregrounds  the Banker ladies who have taught us through lived experience about social provisioning.

What I learned from Caribbean Banker Ladies in and out of the region is how to do business equitably. How to co-opt aid and to be mindful of the biased allocations of money. Most Canadians and Americans ignore these contributions that Caribbean immigrants make in the society, when they build mutual aid systems. These co-op systems are about community, and they point us to ways in which we can make business inclusive. When Caribbean people encounter any kind of exclusion, Boxhand is there to help. It is a shared banking system that is barely seen for the community development work it does. Not only should the Banker Ladies be seen, but these women co-operators should be remunerated for their economic development work.

Politicized co-operation
The idea behind politicized co-operation is about reaching those who are left out. The Black Social Economy theory that I am developing is useful here because it argues that to counter inequities, historically oppressed people must politicize co-operation and organize on a collective model to combat economic exclusion.

The Caribbean Banker Ladies are living proof that there is a resistance quietly taking place. Thousands of women lead co-ops and remake co-operative economies despite the everyday traumas they endure. These Caribbean Banker Ladies who I interviewed organized co-ops, refusing to sit idly by waiting on handouts. They contribute as co-operators to make our world a better place. Banker Ladies who organize ROSCAs are rooted in mutual aid and they hold the keys to underdevelopment. They know the risks they take to reveal the elitism of corporate and individualized banking but they do it anyway.

This is in part because they are consciously redefining what money is, and adding in the cultural and social dimensions. They use group consensus, ethics and mutual aid to help those who are discriminated against, or those who feel like they don’t belong anywhere. Their work enhances civic life. Yet they are not remunerated for what they do.

At least the Caribbean Banker Ladies in the region are respected and revered – if not paid for the work they do. In Canada, we ignore (on purpose) these women and what they bring to equitable financial systems. Even the formal Canadian coop system is not sure how to include ROSCAs.

The power of the informal
The tradition of ROSCAs — rooted in Ujamaa, Kombit, Ubuntu and mutual aid — has helped so many people for hundred of years. Yet the system remains obscured, unknown. W.E.B Du Bois was correct when he said that the Underground Rail-road, in fact, was a co-operative in which real risks were taken to free people. Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey also saw the power of informally cooperating through coop businesses.

Caribbean women today are still informally pooling money together to start a new business, pay tuition fees for their children or buy a used car. I remember meeting Banker Ladies in Albouystown in Guyana who explained to me that Box is the way they paid school fees. ROSCAs are rooted in friendship and mutual aid. Whether people with African American roots or newcomers, these ROSCA members embrace co-operative values.

Now that COVID-19 has revived the “rebirth of mutual aid,” stories of neighbours helping each other are the most cherished ones we tell each other through the lockdowns. It’s time to acknowledge the varied forms of co-operativism, mutual aid, self-help groups and ROSCAs, and to recognize that they are important to the vitality of civic life. But none of these forms of economic co-operation is new to Caribbean people wherever they live.

The pandemic has also illuminated systemic inequities and racism. We now understand why Caribbean people, especially women, when they move to Canada and the US would set up their own banking co-op systems out of sight.

The Caribbean Banker Ladies address under-banking and make sure to share what they know on sharing money with other countries where they migrate. These women cooperators build cohesion in the society through ROSCAs, and they teach all of us that economic solidarity matters. And for this work, that goes unpaid, we should be remembering this financial expertise by Caribbean people, because as co-operators they understand how to build trust and reciprocity in complex contexts.

Caroline Shenaz Hossein, Associate Professor of Global Development, University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada. On Wednesday October 27th at 4 p.m. EST she will be giving a public lecture at the University of Toronto (Women and Gender Studies) titled ‘The Banker Ladies and the future of economic cooperation’. You can register here: 

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