Tanager Launches Signature Tool in India to Boost Shubh Mint Self-Help Groups

Women in rural communities play a significant role in their households’ farming endeavors. Despite their contributions, however, gender inequality typically prevents them from being able to make significant economic or social gains.  

Self-Help Groups (SHGs) have served as a useful vehicle in India to address this issue. These groups typically consist of a couple of dozen local women who collaboratively save money that can then be loaned to members of the group for a variety of purposes, ranging from covering unexpected household needs to investing in their family and individual agriculture activities. As SHGs grow their savings, they can also provide opportunities for women to invest in and support income-generating activities that will benefit the entire group.  

SHGs can be quite successful, but group-managed income-generating activities require trust, cohesion, and coordination among the members and taking on larger investments can entail larger risks, requiring more coordination and trust. Further, SHGs often dissolve after a development program and its direct support to the women’s groups ends. Projects often motivate members to work toward a common goal, but if women’s sense of connection is not strong enough to keep them going after a project closes, then the SHG will eventually fracture.

For the Shubh Mint program—which Tanager began implementing in 2017 in partnership with Mars Wrigley—work with SHGs and the promotion of women’s empowerment have been key components from the start. To date, Tanager through this program has brought more than 5,226 women in the state of Uttar Pradesh into 400 SHGs. These groups, which initially saw women taking out small loans to cover practical household expenses, such as medical costs, have evolved into providing opportunities for women to invest in their own small businesses.  

Tanager has also leveraged SHGs to offer capacity building directly to members in areas such as financial literacy, bookkeeping, leadership skills, and family decision-making and to facilitate linkages to government programs that provide additional opportunities to access services, support, and funding for the SHG. 

Importance of Building Social Capital

Yet for all the positive outcomes of these SHGs (including literacy gains as well as the expansion of income-generating activities), it is important to recognize common challenges that impact SHG sustainability and cohesion. Tanager assessed social capital among participants, including during a baseline social capital survey and as part of a mid-program assessment of SHG impacts. These studies revealed:  

  • High numbers of participants reported feeling that they could not express their views in the SHGs.  
  • Participants reported a lack of unity among SHG members and concerns about exploitation by stronger members in the group. 
  • Most participants indicated that their neighbors had good intentions, were generous, and were trustworthy. Where this starkly contrasted was when respondents were asked about general levels of trust related to physical and financial assets—in this case, respondents generally mistrusted the motivations of their neighbors and were wary of being cheated or taken advantage of. This suggests that within SHGs, where members are inter-loaning, there are likely complex perceptions of trust that may determine to what extent women participate in these groups.  

The term “social capital” broadly refers to factors of effectively functioning social groups. These include interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, a shared understanding, shared norms, trust, cooperation, and reciprocity. When starting these SHGs, however, Tanager was in some cases re-building and helping to re-establish trust in communities where SHG groups had previously existed and disbanded due to neglect or mismanagement. In these situations, it was seeking to help groups overcome skepticism based on historical wrongs.  

The team observed that challenges inhibiting social capital are more likely to appear in SHGs that are newer, meet at irregular intervals, or include more diverse members (such as mixed caste, religion, and ages). There are also considerations for personality dynamics that impact group interaction.  

Tanager sought to improve the social capital among women in SHGs because these groups serve such an important role as entry points to increase women’s access to finance, capacity building, and empowerment. SHGs can also serve as a catalyst for expanded income-generation and all of the benefits that brings. This approach is based on the theory that when there is a shared belief among SHG members that the group is safe for interpersonal risk taking, then groups will spur income generation, collective action, and improved well-being. It also assumes that while technical and financial support is important, it is equally as important to focus on the social dynamics of the group itself. And lastly, it assumes that trust levels are variable across groups and communities, that trust deficits limit the overall success of the project, and that trust levels must therefore be understood and addressed.  

Trust-Building Mechanism

In 2023, Tanager, an affiliate of the ACDI/VOCA Group, adapted and piloted the group’s highly successful DecidoSer (or “I Choose to Be”) methodology as an experiential learning mechanism for trust building within Shubh Mint’s SHGs.  

DecidoSer was originally designed in 2016 to build social capital among individuals and communities in Colombia’s post-conflict environments. The approach uses a psychosocial framework to bring people together in a participatory fashion and promote change among and between groups that leads to improvements in trust, teamwork, communication, conflict management, decision-making, and problem solving.  

The Shubh Mint program selected DecidoSer as an approach for its SHGs because of its experiential adult learning methodology; usability with illiterate or low levels of literacy; and adaptable activities that target improvements in trust, dialogue, respect, and empowerment. The Shubh Mint technical staff collaborated with Caroline Allen, associate director, technical learning and application, to identify and adapt the most appropriate DecidoSer activities for the SHG context.  

In the end, three core focus areas for the SHGs emerged:  

  1. Activities with an “individual” focus on themes such as self-care and self-awareness, with the recognition that an individual’s own physical, mental, and emotional health is important to be able to fully participate in the collective. 
  2. Activities focused on “dynamics within the group” that emphasize the importance of respect and trust within the collective group. 
  3. Activities focused on “teamwork and improved coordination and communication,” presenting scenarios where participants must overcome obstacles or challenges together. 

In May 2023, the technical staff hosted Allen in Lucknow to deliver a training of trainers (TOT) on DecidoSer activities. As part of the TOT, the team collectively decided on nine different DecidoSer activities to pilot, over four different sessions. Each session would be approximately two hours in length. The pilot took place in July and August 2023; activities were delivered by eight staff members to a total of 471 women of varying socio-economic levels in four different clusters across Uttar Pradesh. 

Increases in Self-Confidence, Trust, Cooperation

To determine the pilot’s effectiveness, a pre-test was delivered to participants in June 2023. A follow-up post test was conducted a month after the pilot’s completion in September 2023. Participants used a Likert scale to respond to 10 positive statements regarding their attitudes and perceptions relevant to the SHG.  

Results have been positive. Participants reported a significant increase in their self-confidence, trust in each other, and sense of cooperation within the groups. For example, when asked about trusting SHG members with information on personal or family matters, 32% of respondents in the pre-test said they “somewhat agree.” In the post-test, the majority shifted to “completely agree,” at 49%. Further, when reflecting upon the statement, “I feel a high sense of belonging to my group,” 82% responded “completely agree” in the pre-test. This increased to 99% in the post-test.  

Overall, although the pre-test results already indicated that participants felt fairly positive about their groups, with 68% of respondents indicating that they “completely agree” with the statements, post-test results revealed a significant upward shift to 89%. This suggests that DecidoSer had a strong impact on participant perceptions. 

“Participants reported a considerable rise in their self-esteem, trust in one another, and sense of teamwork. They also exhibited a stronger sense of empowerment and belief in their abilities to contribute to their own growth,” reports Shika Roy, women’s empowerment specialist for Shubh Mint.  

The Shubh Mint staff further observed greater participation in group meetings after participating in the training, and the DecidoSer sessions seemed to be a rejuvenating activity for the whole SHG.  

Given the success of the pilot, and to ensure SHG sustainability beyond the life of the program, Tanager plans to expand the implementation of DecidoSer in 2024 with new SHGs. The training will reach approximately 1,200 women by 2028. The program intends to collect additional learning around changes in self-confidence, trust, and social cohesion as well as whether participating in DecidoSer increases SHG engagement in income-generating and collective activities. 

Thanks to Caroline Allen, associate director of technical learning, ACDI/VOCA, for her significant contributions to this article.