Five Lessons for International Development in Fragile States


When conflict strikes, development stalls. Around the world, insecurity is one of the greatest threats to economic growth. The poor are often most susceptible to security threats, and during economic crises the vulnerable move from a struggle for subsistence to a fight for survival.

South Sudan has ranked as the world’s most fragile state for three out of the past four years. Widespread insecurity, a lack of public services, and large numbers of refugees and IDPs, have contributed to an extremely fragile state. 

Amidst such conditions, many NGOs have left. Those remaining focus their efforts on relief or emergency response rather than on long-term development or economic security. Is sustainable development even possible in such circumstances?

Above: Members of a Savings Group in Warrap State pose with their savings box after recording their weekly contributions. The keys to the three locks are held by different members chosen by their group.

Above: Members of a Savings Group in Warrap State pose with their savings box after recording their weekly contributions. The keys to the three locks are held by different members chosen by their group.

Over ten years of working in South Sudan, Five Talents has honed an approach to community development that has resulted in thousands of new businesses, the development of community banks, and the empowerment of tens of thousands of women through literacy and financial inclusion. Their work demonstrates that even in fragile states facing great crises, human flourishing is possible among the marginalized poor.

Reflecting on Five Talents’ work, five key lessons come to mind for empowering the poor in fragile, conflict states:

1. Partner with trusted, local institutions.

Above: Women gather during a savings group meeting in South Sudan.

Above: Women gather during a savings group meeting in South Sudan.

Trust is the basis for social capital and a solid foundation for economic development. In even the most divided and desperate contexts there are local institutions that garner immense trust and respect within their communities. In South Sudan, the Episcopal Church is one of the most trusted civil society organizations and serves an estimated 3.5 million members- reaching nearly every community across the country. Five Talents has chosen to work with the women’s ministry network of the Episcopal Church to implement programs through respected indigenous partners.

2. Put communities first.

Five Talents uses a community-first method that emphasizes relationships rather than transactions. Members form savings groups with neighbors and friends and make regular contributions, starting with as little as 50 cents per week. After an initial cycle of savings, loans are available for business development with an average of 1% interest per month. By using a communal meeting approach, community managed accounting processes, and group loan guarantees, each member is encouraged, supported, and held accountable to success by the whole group. The result is a 98% repayment rate.

Above: Directors of the South Sudan Community Bank in Kuajok.

Above: Directors of the South Sudan Community Bank in Kuajok.

3. Equip local management and ownership.

Five Talents savings groups and community banks are all locally owned and managed. Members develop their own constitutions and rules of operation with advice from a local mentor on best practices. Joint ownership brings communities together and has provided a powerful tool for reconciliation.

4. Empower women as change agents.

Above: Joyce is a Savings Group Member, Literacy Graduate, and Entrepreneur who has built her own successful business.

Above: Joyce is a Savings Group Member, Literacy Graduate, and Entrepreneur who has built her own successful business.

Despite a history of marginalization, women hold an oversized role in South Sudan as caregivers, teachers and champions of peace and development.  Eighty percent of Five Talents savings group members are women, many of whom are single mothers or widows of war. By starting with literacy and financial literacy programs, Five Talents helps women develop confidence and skills to become leaders for development in their communities. After developing literacy and business skills, many women become leaders within their communities.

5. Mobilize local resources.

Much of the microfinance world is driven by microcredit rather than microsavings. The credit-led approach has been criticized for introducing debt, funding consumption, and inhibiting the development of healthy, local systems for financing.  In contrast, Five Talents focuses on mobilizing local assets. This involves a business development method of asset mapping and raising local resources through community savings. Small groups of 10-20 members save and invest together and learn to utilize local assets for businesses that can serve and grow with their communities.

This is what your development dollar does in South Sudan through Five Talents:

  • $85 empowers one family with financial literacy, business skills training, and access to community financial services.

  • $500 supports a community facilitator to train and monitor savings groups among displaced communities

  • $1,000 equips an entire community savings group through one year of training, development, and mentoring.


Note: This article was initially published with the World Bank as part of the Community Connections Campaign.

What is Poverty? A Definition from Five Talents

Five Talents serves the poorest and most vulnerable communities in developing countries

Most dictionaries define poverty as having "inferior quality or insufficient amount." This definition is inadequate. Poverty must be experienced to be understood. Walk in the shoes of the poor and you will understand that:

Poverty is an unmet need and an unfulfilled longing. Poverty is lack of food, shelter, and everything good. Poverty is being sick and unable to see a doctor. Poverty is never having an opportunity to go to school. Poverty means not knowing how to read and write. Poverty is clothes that don't fit. Poverty is standing on the outside looking in. Poverty is dirty water you must drink. Poverty is a man without a job and a family without a home. Poverty is a long walk without shoes. Poverty is illness without treatment. Poverty is pain in the stomach. Poverty is vulnerability to every scheme, lie, and cheat. Poverty is an empty refrigerator. Poverty is no refrigerator, no stove, no electricity. Poverty is one toilet for one hundred neighbors. Poverty is a thief in the night. Poverty is a drunk father. Poverty is a child lost to preventable disease. Poverty is a mother weeping. Poverty is injustice without appeal. Poverty is cruel. Poverty is stress. Poverty is shame. Poverty is famine. Poverty is war. Poverty is pain. Poverty is life without life. Poverty marginalizes, poverty suffocates, and poverty kills.

More than 3 billion people live in poverty. In the time it took you to read this definition, twenty six of them just died. Eight died of lower respiratory infections. Six died of starvation. Five died of water borne disease. Four died of HIV/AIDS. Two died of malaria. One died in childbirth.

At Five Talents, we fight poverty. Find out how.


  1. Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-income and middle-income countries. Black, Robert E et al. The Lancet, Volume 382, Issue 9890, 427 - 451.
  2. Top Ten Causes of Death by Country Income Group, World Health Organization (2012)
  3. Pneumonia and diarrhoea: Tackling the deadliest diseases for the world's poorest children, UNICEF (2012)
  4. Levels and Trends in Child Mortality; UNICEF, WHO, World Bank, UN-DESA Population Division (2015)

Micro-Enterprise Development in Indonesia: A Conversation with Five Talents Program Director Suzanne Middleton

Each of Five Talents' microfinance programs are tailored to meet the needs of the communities they serve. Here, Five Talents Program Director Suzanne Middleton explains how micro-lending, training and mentoring are transforming lives in Indonesia, where Five Talents partners with The GERHATI Foundation.

What makes the Indonesia program unique among our other programs in Asia, Africa and Latin America?
The Indonesia program is different to other Five Talents programs in two main ways. One, Five Talents was responsible for the development of this program from the very beginning, when the first request came from the Indonesian Anglican church for a micro-enterprise development program among the communities they serve. From board development and training to management and staff hiring and training, Five Talents has been the key partner from the start. Two, GERHATI's outreach is to predominantly Muslim communities. In fact, over 95 percent of the program recipients are Muslim.

If we were to take a walk through one of the communities served by Five Talents in Indonesia, what might we see, in terms of living conditions? What does the family unit look like in such communities?
Many of the communities suffer from poor or non-existent sanitation services, such as sewers or storm water drains. Access to clean water is often difficult and expensive. Many families – which, on average, consist of three to four children – make do with water from polluted water ways, and many suffer sicknesses as a result. Communities are often marked by uncollected rubbish, which pollutes the water ways and areas surrounding houses, attracting rats and other health hazards. Poorer communities are usually in areas prone to flooding, which occurs sometimes multiple times each year.

We talk a lot about the importance of Five Talents' local partnerships with indigenous organizations. Can you explain why such partners are critical to the success of the programs?
Helping indigenous communities and churches to help themselves and achieve meaningful empowerment and self-determination is at the core of the Five Talents mission. Assessing what key indigenous people want to achieve for their communities and country is crucial to working out the best methods of helping them achieve this. Partnering with a local organization enables Five Talents to align values and objectives to a well-governed and well-managed program that knows precisely what it wants to achieve and who to target. A strong local organization is well-grounded in its own environment and is there to stay.

Our partners are always striving to meet the needs of the women and men in the program. What are some of the ways that the Indonesia program has been evolving to meet members' needs?
GERHATI strives to "unlock" the natural gifts and strengths that people have through skills training and provision of a forum that enables them to discover, with each other in groups, the many different ways, individually and corporately, that will enhance their income, knowledge and general quality of life. Basic skills, such as numeracy, literacy, hygiene, book keeping, etc., can be taught by trainers who also encourage dialogue and discussions that help the group learn to work together.

In your mind, what's the measure of success for a program like this? What do you look for when evaluating the program's positive impact on individual group members and on the community at large?
One of the biggest indicators of success is the expression of hope for the future by the individuals and groups that our partner GERHATI works with. When people, after participating in the program for only a few months, begin to see new opportunities and possibilities for their families in terms of education, new business ventures and income opportunities and healthier living, then we can feel assured that the program is on the right track and its mission and vision is being achieved.

Savings-Led Microfinance – It’s Not New, But It Is Transformational

A few years ago, The Economist highlighted a form of microfinance that Five Talents has been practicing for nearly two decades. The story, published on December 10, 2011, praises the savings-led model of microfinance, which involves groups of women and men who pool their savings before drawing out small loans from that pool in order to sustain and develop their micro-businesses. The savings approach to microfinance is much different than the microcredit model that is widely used.

We at Five Talents were delighted to see The Economist's coverage of savings groups, but we would like to make a few additional points that show how savings groups can also be an avenue for community transformation.

Five Talents has been working with this model for nearly two decades.  What is most compelling about the savings group model is that it can reach – and empower – the very poor. In other words, those people who are too poor even to have access to mainstream microfinance organizations that are giving loans of $60 or more.

Through this model, Five Talents has helped to facilitate loans as small as $7. There's the story of Leonie, a mother of eight children in the African country of Burundi. She joined 15 others to form a savings and loan association they called "Nyarumanga", which means, "Let's pray for each other." (In the above photo, the savings group is holding a meeting.)

None in the group had ever saved or borrowed, so in order to create some capital, they all labored together by carrying construction materials for a builder and pooled their pay. With Leonie's first loan of just $7, she bought salt and sold it for a profit in her community.

As it turns out, the primary beneficiaries of her success have been her children. "I can pay for school fees so my children can go to school," she told us. "All will go to school – I won't keep any at home because I was kept at home and I don't want that."

Group-led microfinance can also lead to significant social change. In 2007, Five Talents helped to build a community bank in a rural village in South Sudan. The village was subsequently burned down by a rival clan from a neighboring community, but the bank survived the pillaging. Later, the members who had savings in the bank became a force for reconciliation and brought the different clans together. Now the formerly rivaling clans live in peace and are using their savings to be productive and not destructive.

What's just as important as seeking to bring financial benefits to the poor is seeking to bring the social benefits of financial literacy, leadership development and unity. Thus, savings groups are engines for leadership development, empowerment and dignity – not just for financial gain.