Ali has been selling wall clocks and wristwatches in a crowded Karachi market for 15 years. He’s been participating in savings circles with fellow shopkeepers for just as long, and has used the proceeds to buy a car and acquire a new store.
Now he’s a few months away from getting 400,000 rupees ($4,100) from a savings group of 16 shopkeepers into which he’s been paying 1,000 rupees a day for almost a year. He plans to put a down payment on an apartment. “This system is flawless,” says Ali, 35, who goes by one name. “You can never save this way without this binding commitment of making payments every day or every month. At banks there are hassles and procedures that waste time. This is simple. The organizer comes to collect the money himself, and because of the trust element, it’s a given that we’ll get the money.”
Millions of Pakistanis save billions of rupees in informal, interest-free savings circles called ballot committees—popularly known as BCs—run by housewives, students, office workers, shopkeepers, even high-society ladies. Each member of a group of trusted friends or relatives contributes the same sum daily or monthly to a pool for a predetermined length of time, usually one year. Through a ballot, each participant is allotted a number indicating his or her turn. Every month, one participant gets the pool total. Everyone on the committee keeps contributing until each member gets a pot of cash.
The organizer, who doesn’t charge a fee and collects contributions from each participant, often takes the first installment. Nafisa Arif, a Karachi housewife, has run BCs for 12 years. She’s handling four BCs involving 110 people, all of them relatives. “I only run committees in the family,” she says. “Otherwise there’s the danger someone can run away with the money. That’s no fun.”
No one knows the origins of savings circles, but they’re found in Africa and Latin America as well as Asia. “This system has existed in South Asia as long as I’ve known, and it was started by low-income women who were financially insecure,” says Ashfaque Hasan Khan, dean at the business school of the National University of Sciences & Technology in Islamabad. “The purpose was to hedge against a problem or to pay for a son or daughter’s wedding.” In India a similar savings plan, called a chit fund, flourishes. The big difference is that India’s savings circles, after years of operating on their own, are now regulated by the government.