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(PDF, 1MB) It is not unusual for well-established Savings Groups to provide a platform for social interventions. However, WORTH, a women’s empowerment programme implemented by Pact International in Nepal, is unusual in that it combined Savings Groups’ activities with value-added, socially-focused activities from its inception. The value-added activities spearheaded by WORTH, including literacy training and business development services, function to support its primary objective: the empowerment of its members. Separate post-programme interventions utilized the skills Savings Group members had developed to conduct housing and health interventions.
WORTH is a women’s empowerment programme designed and implemented by Pact, an American organization. In Nepal, WORTH provided integrated support to develop a broad range of skills, from basic literacy to financial literacy, with the global objective of empowering beneficiaries. Pact and the donor agency, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), anticipated that the integrated service delivery approach would deepen both the motivation of beneficiaries and the benefits of the programme. From 1999 to 2001, WORTH trained 6,000 groups (approximately 125,000 women) in 21 districts across southern Nepal. Members received access to savings and credit services, as well as literacy education, business development services, and rights and advocacy training.
WORTH’s Savings Groups (Village Banks or VBs) are similar to SGs except that members i) maintain a long-term time horizon and do not disband and reconstitute the group every year, and ii) commonly distribute earnings every six months through entries in members’ passbooks, while retaining members’ savings and the group’s earnings so that the loan fund can continue to grow to support loans to members. With Pact’s support, women developed VBs, became literate, started or grew businesses, and learned about their rights. By pairing income generating activities (IGAs) and education together in one programme, WORTH’s initaitive had positive impacts and added value for members across development sectors.
Platforms and Linkages
This case study examines the WORTH project and its various activities as well as two additional interventions involving WORTH groups but implemented by other national and international organisations separately. The study addresses the sustainability and replicability of the programmes.
WORTH’s literacy training was the cornerstone of its program. In 2003 two-fifths of group members reported that before WORTH they had not been able to read a book, fill out a savings passbook, get information from public signposts or sign their names. That proportion had dropped to eight percent after four years of programming. Members of one group reported they had encouraged each other to read, “We can all write our names now, and most of us can read. Literacy makes a big difference. We know the difference but we can’t explain it. It’s inside.”
In conjunction with developing VBs, WORTH provided business development training to enhance new opportunities that access to the VB’s financial services offered members. Value was added because of i) the integration of microenterprise development messages in all WORTH literacy materials, including stories about women in business and ii) use of the Appreciative Planning and Action framework, which encouraged women to share their business-related success stories with each other.
Rights, Responsibility and Advocacy (RRA)
When RRA training began, some women did not know that they, as women, had any rights. Many particularly valued learning that a woman needed to register her marriage if she was to have any recourse to access property should her husband die. Women enjoyed RRA, but its integration into the rest of the programme was sub-optimal because the RRA training was often provided at the same time groups were learning how to set interest rates or how to calculate VB dividends.
Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS project
After the WORTH project ended, a national NGO called Samjhauta implemented a health project from 2002 to 2003. Samjhauta focused on developing and testing self-instructional materials as an effective means to i) disseminate health information, ii) generate group discussion, and iii) motivate women in SGs to mobilize the community around HIV/AIDS issues. Samjhauta identified WORTH groups as ideal partners since they were already organised, met regularly, exhibited trust among members that supported frank discussion of sensitive issues, and were familiar with the use of written material for learning. The existing VB model made it possible to reach over twice as many women as originally planned. However, a significant challenge of this programme design was that VBs did not have a strong technical foundation upon which to build future HIV/AIDS related programming.
Housing Financing Project
In 2005, Habitat for Humanity (HFH) Nepal’s “Save & Build” (S&B) programme used VBs in four WORTH districts to provide low-income people an opportunity to build or improve their homes with financing channelled through the VBs. HFH Nepal benefited from the capacity of VBs to manage and lend funds responsibly. After initial training in S&B procedures, VBs were well qualified to take on most of the implementation of the S&B program, including beneficiary selection and training, technical assistance, as well as loan disbursement and collection. Given their strong relationship with the community, members were ideally placed to evaluate credit risk and ensure timely repayment. In turn, members saw S&B as empowering as it led to concrete changes in the community and enhanced VB members’ status. Interestingly, the S&B product reached predominantly non-members, since most group members already had improved housing from the VB activities.
Two-thirds of WORTH VBs survived the Maoist insurgency and civil war that faced Nepal until 2006 and were still functioning in 2007, six years after the programme ended. Furthermore, these groups had created approximately 425 new groups with no external assistance. At the time of the post-programme assessment in 2007, it was estimated that from the original membership of 35,481 women participating in VBs when the Pact programme ended in 2001, in 2007 there were over 37,000 women members.
In contrast, relatively few of the WORTH VBs that received post-programme interventions from external organisations have sustained the additional activities without ongoing externally-generated interventions. Assessments of Samjhauta and HFH Nepal projects indicate that neither partnership with WORTH groups could be sustained without additional capacity building. Neither Samjhauta facilitators nor staff from partner NGOs possessed adequate medical backgrounds to facilitate complex and sensitive discussions of sexuality with women in the VBs.
Various evaluations of the HFH Nepal housing project indicated the sustainability of the housing intervention hinged on whether or not HFH can develop a programme that does not depend upon subsidized capital for the housing loan fund. Without moving away from that subsidy, S&B will always be dependent upon external contributions.
WORTH groups became strong solidarity groups that have embarked on numerous collective IGAs and infrastructure development initiatives. Group members have also been remarkably active in setting and enacting social agendas which reflect, at least in part, the self-confidence that women attribute to having been beneficiaries of WORTH. Drawing lessons from the integrated approach taken by WORTH in Nepal could change the way future SG development takes place.
The WORTH experience proposes a delivery model that supports an integrated approach at programme launch, with complementary interventions incorporated to address the issues underlying the need for SGs in the first place. The programme also points to the potential of using self-instructional neo-literate materials to anchor complementary interventions and highlights the value of SGs as providers of a social safety net for their members and for the larger community.
This brief is based on research and case study sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation’s Savings Groups Learning Initiative, written by Marcia Odell in September 2010. View the full case study
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