Facilitating empowerment through SHG management
The case of VVK and SOMNEED at Vishakapathnam in Andhra Pradesh, India

Slum women played drama at a city theater
On July 3rd, 2007, at a theater named “Vishakha Music and Dance Academy”, ordinary women from at the slum areas of Vishakapathnam city, State of Andhra Pradesh, India, performed a drama on the stage in front of more than two hundred audience. They are the member of “Vishakha Vanitha Kranthi (VVK)”, a federation of slum women’s self-help groups (SHGs). VVK was established in 2005 with the facilitation of SOMNEED (a Japanese NGO) under a JICA assisted project called “Creation of new type of producer-consumer relationship and common property resources through the linkage of urban-rural women Self Help Groups” (PCUR-LINK project). The drama that the VVK members played described a brief history of VVK activities. The major topics of the play were; How the condition of SHGs changed after they participated in the project, how the VVK was formed, What they learned from SOMNEED about the management of SHGs and VVK, What were the initiatives took by VVK to acquire legal status, and what are the present banking activities implemented by VVK.
Obviously, it was their first time to perform such a drama in a big auditorium in front of such a large audience. But all the actress from the slum looked very excited and they really enjoyed performing drama to show what and how they achieved throughout the three years of the project period. Before the performance at the theater, the VVK members spent more than 100 hours to prepare the script, to practice the drama, to have rehearsal for getting advice from SOMNEED, and to even reserve the city theater by themselves. It was a part of “Final Evaluation” activities of the project, and in fact, it was a climax of the three year self-reliant actions of the slum women who have been “empowered” by participating the PCUR-LINK project.

Outline of the project
The PCUR-LINK project started in July 2004 as one of the Grass-Root Technical Cooperation Projects of JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). The project duration was three years (July 2004 to June 2007), and SOMNEED (a Japanese NGO based in Takayama city of Japan) is an implementing organization together with its Indian counterpart organization, SOMNEED Trust India. The project purpose is “creation of new type of producer-consumer relationship and common property resources through women SHG empowerment”, and the target groups are the women SHGs at urban and suburban slums in Vishakapathnam city.
Since its establishment in 1993, SOMNEED has been involved in community development activities in the rural mountainous areas of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa States in India. It implemented various activities such as tree plantation, literacy classes, mini-hydro project, and SHG promotion in rural communities. However, in recent years, it witnessed massive migration trend from rural area to urban slums due to the drought hit in rural areas. Most of the migrants start living in the city slum areas, and the slum dwellers have no common property resources that provide a margin to survive. Creating employment opportunities and preventing deterioration of their habitat are pressing agenda.
Having realized the issues described above, SOMNEED took initiative to be engaged in slum areas, and started building relationship with women’s SHGs through a local NGO while having comprehensive research on the condition of those SHGs and their members. The project PCUR-LINK was launched based on such preliminary actions. It aims at improving basic skills of slum women for management of SHGs, establishing new type of producer-consumer relationship, and mobilizing locally available resources.

The slum women changed from “object” to “subject”
Within the three years of the project period, it is a really exciting achievement that the slum women who participated in VVK (SHG federation) have become “subject” of their activities. Now, they can manage all the meetings, savings, and loan procedure according to the rules and regulations settled by themselves. The slum women have true sense of “ownership” in the SHGs and their federation (VVK).
However, it was not easy for SOMNEED to change the mind and attitude of both the slum women and staff of the local NGO who thought “SHGs are recipients of aids and NGOs are the service providers”. It also required much time to develop skills of managing SHGs by members themselves.
The process of evolution of SHGs and VVK can be categorized into four stages;

1) Awakening stage
This is the stage where the slum SHG member became aware of the true meaning of “Self-Help” actions, and start improving SHG activities by themselves. It is said that more than 2 million “Self Help Groups” formed by NGOs or government institutions throughout India. However, most of the SHGs are managed by outsiders – NGO staff or government field workers. They helped SHGs in book keeping, regular meetings, and loan provision from banks. There are very few “Self-Help” groups in its true sense.
In late 2004, SOMNEED took representatives from the slum SHGs in Vishakapathnam to Chennai (the capital city of Tamil Nadu State) where they visited Akshaya Bank. The bank was established 10 years ago by SHG members, and it has more than 1,200 members of poor women and more than fifty thousand US dollars fund accumulated by the members. The SHG members from Vishakapathnam were shocked to know that the slum women of the bank manages everything (savings and credit procedure) without help of outside NGO staff. After coming back from Chennai, the slum women tried to improve their SHG management such as having regular meetings, increasing attendance rate, and recovering bad debts.
SOMNEED did not give any instruction to the SHGs. It stimulates motivation of the SHGs by showing good example of internal fund rotation, encourages them to fix target indicators of SHG improvement, and facilitated them to do their best to achieve the target.

2) Trial and error stage
After establishment of the SHG federation (VVK) in March 2005, VVK members (joined from slum SHGs) started preparing rules and regulations of the federation. It was almost first time for them to discuss something and to reach conclusion thoroughly by themselves, therefore, it took much time to settle the agenda, record the discussion, and come into concensus. Finally, 11 months after the establishment, VVK finalized its rules and regulations consisting of 25 clauses. While discussing rules and regulations, VVK members also tried to start business as a collective action for economic improvement. They visited Hyderabad (state capital of Andhra Pradesh) to observe various markets and shops in order to think what and how to start own business. After that, they started Sari (traditional Indian women clothes) business investing 25,000 rupee ($600). Unfortunately, that business almost failed and they lost their money. The VVK members then realized the importance of having business skills such as cost-calculation and book keeping.
In the process of above trials and errors of VVK, SOMNEED did not give suggestions or advice to VVK unless it was asked to do so. It also provided training opportunities for those who really want to learn management of VVK. Training on basic accounting, and book keeping is arranged by SOMNEED.
When VVK established, there were 7 SHGs joined. However, one year later, it decreased into only 4 groups, as it was hard for some members to improve organizational management capacity.

3) Expansion stage
In April 2006, the first general assembly of VVK was held, and they started recruiting new member SHGs by visiting candidate groups, giving advice for better SHG management, and motivating them to join VVK. As a result, after 5 months, 20 SHGs became members of the federation. At the same time, VVK members tried to acquire formal registration as mutually aided cooperative. It was necessary if VVK wanted to start banking activities. The VVK members prepared necessary documents and submitted to the registration office. However, the officer there caviled for one thing or another at every time they visited, and implicitly requested bribe in order to process the documents. The VVK refused to give any bribe, continuously visited and asked for formal procedure. Finally, after 7 months, they got registration as mutually aided cooperative.
In this stage, SOMNEED did not initiate any activities. All the actions were taken by VVK themselves, and SOMNEED did not even accompany the VVK members who visit the registration office. It only gave advices when asked.

4) Take-off stage
The last thing that SOMNEED focused on for the capacity building of VVK was to train trainers for group management (fund rotation and book keeping). Through three months course, only 4 members passed the final exam and started visiting newly joined SHGs to teach book keeping and fund management. It is one of the indication that VVK will be able to sustain the quality of SHG management by themselves without help of SOMNEED.
VVK also started lending to its members in March 2007. Within one month, it provided loan amounting around 2,000 US dollars from its own fund. Rules and regulations for loan products are settled by VVK themselves. Again, SOMNEED gave only technical training and advice when VVK prepared loan criteria and regulations. Presently, after the PCUR-LINK project finished in June 2007, VVK operates its savings and credit program totally by themselves.

How SOMNEED facilitated empowerment?
It was not easy for the staff of SOMNEED India and its partner local NGO to facilitate initiatives of the slum women. In general, the field staff of local NGO were accustomed to “teach” and “lead” SHGs in their everyday activities. Book keeping, saving accumulation, loan provision, and even calling SHG members to attend meetings were major task of the NGO staff. When the PCUR-LINK project started, SOMNEED asked the NGO staff not to give any help or instruction to the groups unless they are requested by SHGs. Stimulated by exposure tour to Akshaya Bank in Chennai, the SHG members started to try everything by themselves. When the NGO staff visited any SHG meetings, they sat behind the group quietly, and raised hands for seeking permission to talk if they felt necessary to do so. “You should not teach them, and wait until you are asked.” It is one of the most important attitudes for NGO staff if it wants to construct equal partnership with the slum people.
In the process of final evaluation activities held in July 2007, SOMNEED staff reviewed their actions towards SHGs and VVK, and they summarized several key concepts for “facilitation of slum women’s initiative”. Those are;
a) Unless asked, no intervention.
b) Pose question, but do not teach.
c) Believe their capacity, but do not expect.
d) Let them do first, wait, and see.
e) Raise your hands, seek permission, then talk.
f) Set bottom line, and talk such a manner that even 10 year child can understand.

SOMNEED strategy for facilitation
There are some important points in the strategy of SOMNEED for facilitating initiatives of the slum women.

1) Stimulating curiosity
It had a great impact on the women’s motivation that SOMNEED took them to the successful example of SHG federation bank (Akshaya Bank) in Chennai. Showing visible successful cases is a good way to stimulate the curiosity of the people who then take initiative for own action.

2) Setting achievable targets, and praise if achieved
SOMNEED encouraged the SHG or VVK members to settle concrete targets such as improvement of SHG management, criteria for joining VVK, criteria for passing exam of trainers. If anyone can achieve the targets and is praised by others, he or she increases own motivation to do something.

3) Encouraging feedback and sharing information
It was always emphasized by SOMNEED that every and each information should be shared among all the members. Result of exposure tours or any conclusion of VVK meetings were shared and given feedback. It is a minimum condition for sustainable independent management for any organization to share information and have open discussion. Through such practice, SOMNEED tried to produce a new type of sustainable management and leadership of community-based organizations.

Report by M. Nagahata (i-i-network)

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