Caroline Shenaz Hossein and Natalie Holmes
Susu is a centuries-old financial system in Ghana. A type of rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA), it’s one of a number of informal, collective financial institutions practiced across West Africa. For their study, ‘Situating the West African System of Collectivity: A Study of Susu Institutions in Ghana’s Urban Centers’ (1), Caroline Shenaz Hossein and Samuel Kwaku Bonsu interviewed 46 Susu members in cities across Ghana. Their results reveal why such community-based systems and practices make an important contribution to bottom-up development—addressing economic inequalities while providing a sustainable alternative to the harmful and dominant neoliberal ideology.
Neoliberalism imagines an economy focused on the individual pursuit of wealth and materialism. In the context of development, this economic model sees the processes of socioeconomic cultural change solely from a white historical perspective: the dominant economy is framed as a self-regulating system driven by individuals’ motivation to better their own condition—often at the expense of others. This mindset is based on the assumption that the world has infinite resources, and it ends up transforming self-sustaining economies into environmentally devastating systems.
As a practice, Susu quietly challenges the dominant global system. Its very existence refutes capitalism’s insistence that it’s the only possible model for society. The truth is, wholly alternative systems exist—and have existed for a very long time.
What is a Susu and how does it work?
Susu means “little by little” and also “to plan” in Ghana’s Twi language. Members of a Susu contribute a set amount of money regularly, which is then pooled together and given to each member in turn over a defined period. The bulk sum allows members to accumulate capital, making it easier for them to embark on business ventures, make larger purchases, pay for school fees, weddings, or funerals, and fulfill other needs. While this is the loose structure, each Susu group has its own set of rules.
Susu is not just about money, however. The purpose is not profit, but the pooling and sharing of resources for the benefit of all members. Typically they are democratic, with board members elected to make decisions on behalf of the group. What’s more, the practice is grounded, as the article’s authors note, “in the African effort to maintain community life.”
Research has shown that Susu predates colonialism, but its existence outside of the dominant market system means that it has remained somewhat hidden and unacknowledged. Yet it’s the informal nature of Susu systems that make them particularly useful—they are flexible and dynamic, able to mobilize quickly based on the shifting needs of members. They also provide a way to make and maintain strong social ties through mutual aid and democratic decision-making.
Why many Ghanaians prefer Susu to the formal banking system
According to the study, “the success of Susu practices in Ghana has led to immense commercial pressures to formalize them.” However, Susu members interviewed expressed a firm refusal to be co-opted into commercial banks. Members are well aware that Susu systems have many benefits over banks—from the strong community ties they encourage to the focus on trust, care, and wellbeing rather than individual self-interest. Susu members are driven by solidarity, not profit. They build lasting friendships and recognize a sense of purpose founded in strong social ties as a central part of living well. “Being in a Susu is about commitment to oneself and community,” write the authors. “It’s a way of life that brings joy.”
Moreover, unlike banks, Susus serve the financial needs of the vulnerable in society and help connect and protect people who are excluded from formal finance—thereby effectively addressing economic inequality. The informality of the system in this context is an advantage. For over 30 years, banks have tried to forge connections to the informal economy, but they have failed in part due to the fact that many Susu members do not meet banks’ formal policies. As one interviewee, a female business owner, put it: “Banks are playing catch up because Susus are about trust and the banks have failed to create opportunities to be seen as trustworthy.”
Many informants also viewed the Susu way of sharing as a “very African invention”—at risk of being subsumed and erased in the process of commercialization. Participating in a Susu can therefore be seen as a political act of resistance to the homogenizing forces of global capitalism.
An antidote to top-down, corporatized international development
Susu members shift the understanding of local development by transcending the capitalist-socialist binary, instead showing that communities can take part in non-for-profit economic activities—a sharing and commoning that can be classed as postcapitalist. Importantly, this is a type of community economy that predates theories that have emerged from the West.
The global economic system’s fixation on formal markets belies the existence of myriad informal markets—”the living economy where most people interact with one another in crucial ways that support life.” In Ghana, our case in point, 88 percent of the economy is classed as informal.
As the authors note: “The Susu system thrives on informality, and rather than ignoring what it has to offer, we need to recognize its nonconformist stand when it comes to development. Susu practices choose to help those excluded in business and society, offering both material and social gains.”
Despite their long history of pooling money for the benefit of the community, Susu systems are rarely, if ever, acknowledged as economic alternatives or as a development solution—even in the community-economy discourse. In their study, the authors seek to rectify this oversight, pointing out that an economy focused on local needs liberates communities from development’s endless cycle of dependence. Discussions of community economies should, therefore, incorporate this kind of Black political-economic theory. Moreover, for those writing about and developing fintech, ROSCAs such as Susus provide a starting point to explore sustainable economic alternatives that are often women-led.
Economics beyond growth and profit
The study shows that humans are not profit-motivated by nature. Susu coop systems resist the corporatization of the economy and offer an inspiring case study for how people can—and do—lead their own development. With their roots in community economies, they provide a working alternative to the aggressive pursuit of economic rents and actively disprove the growth thesis.
That Susu systems continue to survive and thrive in a contemporary neoliberal context is testament to the strength of long-established indigenous approaches. Their wisdom and workings hold lessons for any of us committed to countering capitalism’s destructive narratives and practices.
Caroline Shenaz Hossein is associate professor of Global Development and Political Science at the University of Toronto and she is one of the founding members of the Diverse Solidarity Economies Collective (DISE). Learn more at www.africanaeconomics.com and Twitter @carolinehossein
Natalie Holmes is a freelance writer and editor working in the fields of regenerative economics and humanitarian support & solidarity. She is the managing editor of Post Growth Perspectives, the online publication of the Post Growth Institute.
The pictures featured in this article have been taken from open sources on the internet.
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