This paper, based on desk research undertaken for the Aga Khan Foundation as part of a research series focusing on Savings Groups (SGs), explores: 1) the benefits members experience beyond accessing a group’s financial services, and 2) group sustainability. It examines the SGs developed by Pact during the Nepal implementation of WORTH, a women’s empowerment programme, from 1999 to 2001. The subject of several external evaluations, the most recent carried out six years after the programme ended, WORTH offers a rare opportunity to discover what happens to SGs when they are left to operate independently after the implementing organisation closes its doors.
Following a brief description of the backdrop of Nepal, including the status of women and USAID’s role as the programme donor, this paper focuses on WORTH’s holistic approach to women’s empowerment, anchored by the development of the capacity of groups to provide savings and credit services, which began at programme start-up. Complementary interventions reaching approximately 6,000 groups included literacy, business development, and rights and advocacy training. These were delivered more or less simultaneously from the beginning of the programme, using an approach that encouraged women to share successes with one another rather than problems. This study found that the WORTH design was effective in achieving the objectives set for each intervention, thereby adding value to group membership and helping women attain the larger programme goal of ‘empowerment’, defined as helping women understand how powerful they already are.
The paper examines two interventions originating from organisations external to WORTH that involved some WORTH groups after the programme ended. The first was a reproductive health and HIV/AIDS project funded by the World Bank Development Marketplace in 2002 and 2003 that focused on developing and testing neoliteracy pamphlets in WORTH groups to determine if self-instructional materials were an effective means to a) disseminate health information, b) generate group discussion, c) teach women how to negotiate safer sex with a spouse, and d) motivate women in the groups to mobilise the community around HIV/AIDS. Citing the findings of a post-programme evaluation, the paper concludes that the project was successful in meeting its objectives, benefitting from working with established SGs, although only a third of the participants requested further training in this externally initiated topic. Instead, many women sought additional training in microenterprise development.
The second programme reviewed was one offered by Habitat for Humanity. In Save & Build, selected SGs in four districts became the intermediaries between Habitat Nepal and housing clients. These groups vetted potential borrowers, disbursed and collected loans and provided technical support to homeowners. Based on an end-of-project evaluation, the paper cites findings that the partnership between Habitat Nepal and SGs was very successful – benefitting significantly, as did the reproductive health programme, from the fact that SGs were already functioning – and warrants scaling up. Scaling up, however, involves risk factors for SGs that need to be addressed, including:
If several external agencies over the years have leveraged the SGs as a platform for the delivery of programming, members have also found in their group a platform for a) providing a social safety net for members, b) undertaking collective businesses, and c) reaching out into the community both to repair and build infrastructure and to advocate for social change. Indeed, the research demonstrates that SGs have been remarkably active in setting and enacting a social agenda, one which reflects, at least in part, the self-confidence that women attribute to having been part of WORTH.
As for the issue of group sustainability, the study reveals that two-thirds of WORTH’s SGs survived the Maoist insurgency and civil war and were still functioning in 2007, six years after the programme ended. These groups, with no external assistance, had created approximately 425 new groups entirely on their own. At the time of the post-programme assessment in 2007, it was estimated that there were more women in active SGs than when the programme ended in 2001.
This analysis concludes by drawing lessons from WORTH in Nepal that, if applied, could change the way future SG development takes place. The paper:
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