Coop Banking and Social Enterprise Solutions for Black and Racialized People in Canada and the Americas

Inspired by her documentary and forthcoming book, The Banker Ladies, we recently had the privilege of connecting with Dr. Caroline Shenaz Hossein about her research on coop banking, the role of rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs), and social enterprises in Canada.

Caroline Shenaz Hossein is an Associate Professor of Global Development and Political Science at the University of Toronto at Scarborough in Ontario, Canada. She founded the Diverse Solidarity Economies (DiSE) Collective, made up of more than 20 Black and racialized feminist leaders, and is the author of Politicized Microfinance: Money, power and violence in the Black Americas (University of Toronto Press, 2016). Caroline currently sits on the Board of the International Feminist Economics Association, is the Board Chair of the Miami Institute for Social Sciences, and is a Board trustee of the Association of Social Economics, all global academic institutions reaching thousands of members. She is currently conducting research on the African diaspora in Canada and the Caribbean, and she is particularly interested in advancing the economic role of racialized women in the Caribbean and Canada in real ways to acknowledge and hire the Banker Ladies in economic development. You can see more about her research and projects on her website or follow her on Twitter: @carolinehossein.

  1. What has your career journey been like and what inspired you to create the Banker Ladies documentary and research alternative models of banking?

While at Cornell University (1995-1997), I started researching Sudanese exiles in Cairo, Egypt and livelihood strategies such as Sandooq and other microbanking programs. I then worked in Benin, Niger, Guinea, and a number of other places focused on economic development programming through global non-profits and development aid agencies for about 10 years. Now as an academic, I am interested in coops and the commoning of goods. Though I studied professionalized financial development, such as microfinance, for years as my PhD topic across a number of Caribbean countries, my interest was always in community-driven cooperative institutions, officially known as rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs). ROSCAs are locally called by the vernacular: Susu, Chit, Hagbad, Osusu, Chama, Arisan, Hua and such banking coops. Being told that there was only one commercial model of banking to follow seemed untrue. Growing up in a Caribbean immigrant family we had to struggle for everything, and I knew that right in Toronto African peoples and other racialized immigrants were always organizing their own mutual aid financing and coops, and often did this work out of sight. This is what we can see as part of the commons, in which people shared goods to help themselves and others. In my experience, doing research on ROSCAs is accepted in the academe, as long as one is studying these coops in the Global South, outside of the Western world. Running a ROSCA is tough work because the members who organize these coops are operating informally, and they are commoning resources so building trust takes time. Because I focus on Black marginalized women, this takes even more time to get the story right due to the secrecy at times with informal coop systems. I am working on my fifth book, The Banker Ladies, and the Canadian case is the hard one to do because the ROSCA members – known as the Banker Ladies – hide what they do. The documentary is directed by a Haitian-Canadian filmmaker Esery Mondesir and the goal is to bring awareness and to educate the public about ROSCAs, informal coops, and mutual aid carried out by marginalized Canadian women. The Banker Ladies is hosted on films for action (open access) and it was supported by federal SSHRC funding and the early researcher award by the Province of Ontario. This body of work on ROSCAs in the Americas is based on 11 years of research and I have a book, The Banker Ladies, underway with the University of Toronto Press.           

  1. In your own words, can you explain what ROSCAs are and what they look like? In which countries have you researched ROSCAs?

The acronym ROSCA stands for rotating savings and credit associations. ROSCAs are voluntary coop institutions where people come together on their own to organize and pool money together. These groups are structured depending on its membership. No two ROSCAs look alike meaning that the mechanics of how they run is based on the group. All ROSCAs do have a starting and ending point. Typically, ROSCAs have about a dozen members, and each member contributes a fixed sum of money on a cycle (e.g. weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly) for a specified period (6 months, 10 months, or a year, some for a few years).  

I have been studying ROSCAs since 2007 but have been engaged with them since I was young; we always knew about Susu. I first started thinking about ROSCAs as an academic topic when I lived in Benin and Niger in West Africa and my interest only grew the more I learned about these coop systems. I traveled to Ethiopia and Ghana to learn more about ROSCA systems called Equub and Susu, which have influenced the development of ROSCAs in the Americas. My academic research on ROSCAs has been focused on African diaspora women in Haiti, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, Grenada, and Canada but I am expanding this research to the United States, Brazil, and India with colleagues in these locations. Together with my research collaborator Prof Christabell PJ at the University of Kerala, we are publishing a book with Oxford University Press on community economies in the Global South which looks at ROSCAs all over the Global South, including the Caribbean and Peru in the Americas.  

In Canada, the Banker Ladies hide what they do because anti-Black racism makes it such that Black women are scared to share what they do because their informal money coops are denigrated and viewed with skepticism.

  1.  Do ROSCAs take different forms depending on the political environment of the country they are functioning within?

What I think my work shows is that when Black diaspora women take on ROSCAs, they are doing so with a degree of risk. These women are not being remunerated for the community development work they are doing. In the Caribbean, the Banker Ladies may be free to publicly share about Partner or Susu systems but they are not being included into the development plans. In Canada, the Banker Ladies hide what they do because anti-Black racism makes it such that Black women are scared to share what they do because their informal money coops are denigrated and viewed with skepticism. In my work, ROSCAs by Black diaspora women show that these women cooperators take on risks when they say “no” to commercial banks and opt for collective and cooperative financial systems that they have created. 

4. Is there an effort to formalize ROSCAs in Canada? Is there coherence between the Banker Ladies what the future of ROSCAs in societies like Canada will look like?

At this time there is no effort to formalize ROSCAs in Canada. In fact, most Canadians are either ignorant of these coop systems or stigmatize the people who use them. It should be known that ROSCAs have been in Canada for about at least a century but we act as though they do not exist. We can trace ROSCAs and informal coops to the Underground Railroad – a coop of sorts – and the True Band system which helped refugees settle once they came through the Underground Railroad. We know about these ROSCA systems, but they have been purposefully hidden by Black and marginalized minorities because of their fears of reprisals for using them. When we think about formality, I like to think of it as supporting the commons to grow and not to police it. There is an American activist David Bollier who has written a lot about commoning – as a verb – in the Americas and he makes a good point that it is about the state creating opportunities for these common goods to thrive. 

We are currently at the stage in Canada where we are now understanding the value of mutual aid and informal cooperative institutions and why they matter for excluded minorities. The Banker Ladies are showing how they organize mutual aid, coops, and the commons, and that they individually use their own rights to expand help to the community. My hope for the future is that Canada and its development policies will start to recognize local expertise and to draw on the Banker Ladies for economic development programming in Canada and the Global South. 

5. Given your past experience in international development, how do you convince development practitioners to apply more cooperative practices such as ROSCAs?

In global development, there is a move toward solidarity economies, commoning, and valuing the local development work taking place in countries. The idea of outsourcing programming in development has not worked. This idea that we rely on the foreign expert is not only absurd, but it is colonial. We now know that community-based institutions are effective, not perfect, at making inclusive development take place. The value of cooperativism, in various forms, including ROSCAs, self help groups, associations, formal coops, and mutual aid is where the sector should be moving. It will not be easy to push for group focused development because development is a business that has been created by Western nations to “fix” poorer countries through individualized forms of business. We all know that local expertise, commoning, and cooperative development are the ways in which we move towards more equitable societies. 

6. In a recent article in The Hill Times, you expose racist banking in Canada. Can you explain what racist banking is and how it impacts people in Canada and globally? What is being done to combat racist banking?

Commercial banks in Canada, like in many Western countries with a diverse population, are dealing with policies that harm Black and racialized customers. Black, Muslim, and indigenous people are treated poorly, and it is anecdotal because we only hear the stories that the media reports on. So many cases exist where Black people are trying to make a deposit, open a bank account, or access their own money and they are being apprehended by police. In January 2020, an Indigenous man, Maxwell Johnson, went into his local Bank of Montreal Bank (BMO) in Vancouver with his 12-year old granddaughter and they were both handcuffed for suspected illegal activities. Turns out none of that was true. Frantz St Fleur, a Haitian Canadian, went into his Scotia Bank in Toronto and was apprehended by police because the tellers felt he had a fraudulent check – again, none of that was true. These are the real harms taking place against non-white Canadians every day for doing a mundane act like going into a bank.

Banks in Canada are not tracking racist encounters. Banks are not documenting these incidents in a coherent manner nor are they being made to. In any event, it would be best for a third party, like the (Black) Chamber of Commerce, to manage racist complaints. So it makes perfect sense for people to create their own coop banks.

For years I have been writing on ROSCAs as an antidote to exclusionary finance. But policy makers and those decision makers who have the power to change issues in financial access are not listening. Instead what we see is collusion with the same commercial banks which have a history of colonizing people. Commercial banks profile and there is an elitism in these formal financial institutions that exclude Black, Indigenous, and racialized Canadians.  

7. You have also written about political economic solidarity and the Black Social Economy. Can you explain what these theories are and what they look like in practice?

For a few years (since 2013), I have been writing on the Black Social Economy and the theory is evolving in conversation with many Black feminist scholars in global development, economics, and political science. In 2018, with a group of scholars in the Americas, I edited a book, The Black Social Economy in the Americas, where we show the varied ways Black diaspora people are co-opting goods to use for sharing, cooperating, and commoning together, on their own terms. The Black Social Economy is about marginalized Black people purposefully organizing in a way to co-opt resources, and this is what I call politicized economic solidarity. In 2019, I published a paper to start to unpack the Black Social Economy as a body of work, an intellectual hub of sorts documenting all the rich philosophies taking place in Black political economy as well as to start defining the Black Social Economy. The Black Social Economy is contrary to the “social economy,” as it notes the tension and conflict within the Third Sector and beyond, and it shows that Black people are resisting, creating, and curating their own collective economies. The ROSCA system organized by Black diaspora women is a unique experience and it is often carried out under the radar to be able to assist people to build equitable economies from within. 

8. Can cooperative banking be applied society-wide within the current economic system? Or would that require society to shift towards a cooperative economy?

In 2009, American political scientist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize for her long-standing work on cooperation and commoning. In this body of work called Governing the Commons, she showed that humans are fundamentally interested in sharing resources with one another and that all people should not be defined as rational economic actors only caring about profit-maximization. I do think that cooperative banking can be applied society-wide within the current economic system. Our states need to see that these kinds of banks are useful and create incentives to have more of them. We can see this in other countries, such as Ghana and India. If we could undo the Western bias and pro-growth mentality that there is only one business model – a commercial one – then we would be able to see that cooperative systems offer democracy and voice in how we do finance. More people may then want the current economic system revolutionized.

These women, these feminist leaders, are not interested in corporatization and individualizing the firm. What they are doing is building cooperative economies, commoning together, and co-opting goods in a way to build social and economic programming.

9. Can you talk about the exclusion occurring within social enterprises? Is there a way for racialized people to engage in social enterprise development that is inclusionary?

Millions of dollars are being spent on this fictitious idea of “innovation.” Right now donors and investors are spending a lot of money in the domain of social enterprises. It seems that money under the guise of rebelling against the firm is supposed to be helping with economic inequities. But there is no evidence this is actually happening. What is more glaring is that many Black and racialized communities and their community-based organizations are outside of these networked associations and experts, who access these funds. Even as this sector becomes “diversified” there are people with no qualifications, no credentials in economic development, and limited management experience claiming the funds. These people are using the language of the financiers to replicate business practice and they are seemingly masquerading as experts of the social economy with limited training.

Recently I wrote a paper in Feminist Economics (open access) where I show that there are Black and racialized community expert women leaders who have spent decades working on community development. These women live as feminists and they understand underdevelopment and economics. Yet they are being ignored for social enterprise development funding because they do not use the jargon. The same youngsters they trained who do not have the expertise that they do are accessing those goods because they know how to interact with white decision makers who control the goods. These women, these feminist leaders, are not interested in corporatization and individualizing the firm. What they are doing is building cooperative economies, commoning together, and co-opting goods in a way to build social and economic programming. And in doing this work of building community economies, they actively politicize what they do to show that the enterprise that the development work they do is about transforming unequal social and economic conditions.

10. You are also the founder of the Diverse Solidarity Economies (DiSE) Collective. What is DiSE and what does it work towards?

The DiSE collective is an emerging group of more than 20 scholars who are engaged in empirical research in political economy. We believe that politics does have primacy on economic programming and policies, and that we need to be advocating for those voices who are most ignored: Black women, lower-castes, trans, Muslims, and so on. We are writing and speaking on topics to ensure that we are giving new ideas about the economy. In this work, we cite feminist scholars and activists who are focused on community and cooperative systems to move the economy and political system to one that is thinking about identities. The DiSE Collective also has a base in Kerala, India, which is renowned for its self help and solidarity systems. I am leading this work with economics Prof Christabell PJ at the University of Kerala who helped to grow DiSE. Please take a look at the scholars on my website.    

11. What can people across the Americas (US, Canada, Central & South America, Caribbean) do to support diasporas and help break the stigmatization of ROSCAs and Banker Ladies?

We need to SEE the Banker Ladies, the women who organize ROSCAs. How can we take inventory of what these women are doing and make them a part of economic development plans? There are lessons to see in other parts of the world in which self help and mutual aid groups can be included in development programming. Take Kerala, India where the state for decades has listened to women activists and created the state program called Kudumbashree or K mission as a way to make sure that village women from various socio-economic classes and scheduled castes are being included in development plans. Can we do Kudumbashree in Canada? In Ghana, after centuries of mastering the ROSCA system called Susu, they, for the past few decades, have included a subsect of Susu collectors into its mainstream banking system too. Ghana has not formalized all ROSCAs because the planners see the value of informality. Can we bring the Ghana approach to including Susu into the economy here in Canada? Can we in the Americas learn about equitable and inclusive development from ancient societies in the Global South? People in the Americas, especially those from dominant racial groups, who wield power can start thinking about making room and acknowledging the diverse community economies of Black, Indigenous, and racialized minorities.