Savings, loans and empowerment: Lessons from 20 years of WORTH
Pact’s longstanding livelihoods model, WORTH, is a critical tool for building financial access and incomes around the world. Since its inception in Nepal in 1998, WORTH has reached 1.14 million individuals, primarily women and girls, through 48,342 groups across 16 countries. To recognize and learn from this milestone, we recently conducted a formal review of 28 WORTH programs.
WORTH brings groups of 20-25 members together to establish small community banks for regular savings and lending. These activities are layered with literacy, numeracy and business-oriented skills development. Pooled savings are made available to members through short-term, low-interest loans often used for income-generating activities. By joining these groups, members accumulate assets, diversify their income sources, access much-needed finance, strengthen their social and economic networks and contribute to household decision-making and community development.
Between 1998 and 2020, WORTH groups generated savings of nearly $28 million and distributed more than $36 million in loans. Group members used these funds to improve their livelihoods, engage in small-scale enterprises and contribute to community development projects. Literacy, numeracy and skills-building activities further contribute to educational outcomes and women’s empowerment, bringing benefits for group members as well as their children. While WORTH often engages adult women living in rural areas, it has over time been adapted to reach different populations, such as adolescent girls and young women through Pact’s WORTH-Y model (WORTH for Youth).
A space for learning, social connection and community engagement
WORTH improves individual education and skills, household income and savings behavior and broader community-level outcomes around social cohesion and women’s leadership. Importantly, benefits extend beyond the economic and financial outcomes often associated with village savings and loan approaches and reach households and communities with resources and support.
WORTH contributes to sustainable livelihoods development by providing learning opportunities, bolstering women’s empowerment, creating connections that build group and community cohesion, and supporting community and household resilience. These programs:
Offer informal and formal educational opportunities that support human capital and intergenerational livelihoods development. Education and training offered by WORTH groups increases both individual and intergenerational livelihood potential. Members develop their own knowledge and skillset – in literacy, numeracy or business development – and are also empowered to make positive decisions that benefit themselves and their families.
In Madagascar, WORTH members and their children showed higher levels of individual self-esteem including increased participation and confidence in school or WORTH group settings.
Promote economic empowerment and community engagement for women. Economic empowerment is derived both from business ventures and through improved financial knowledge that women in these programs use for community action, engaging in social issues, assuming local leadership roles and investing in community infrastructure such as schools, roads and health centers.
In Eswatini, 33% of group members started a new business, and a further 41% of this cohort expanded from one to two businesses (or more). Women reported feeling better off compared to their peers and compared to their own lives before joining the WORTH group.
Facilitate connections within WORTH groups that extend to the community. Social capital, or the networks and relationships developed between WORTH group members, is highly valued and a critical component for the women and girls who join the groups. Groups are a platform for women to connect and engage with each other and with their communities, thereby contributing to greater self-confidence, empowerment, trust and social cohesion. This social capital creates a multiplier effect that enables households and communities to thrive.
In Vietnam, 40% of women reported increased engagement in community social and development issues, and 13% of women took on local leadership positions (internal report, 2016).
Generate opportunities to develop community and household resilience. In some communities, there was no other formal group for women to gather and learn from each other. WORTH groups provided a space for them to forge social and economic networks that could be relied upon during difficult times. Diversifying income sources and generating savings allowed group members to engage in more sustainable livelihoods options and have resources to fall back on in the face of shocks.
In Myanmar, 77% of members reported increased access to finance and 74% indicated their livelihoods had improved overall (internal report, 2018).
Future directions: Improved quality and innovation
Below are several important insights and best practices that WORTH implementers – and implementers of any group-based livelihoods intervention more broadly – should strive to integrate within their projects and groups going forward.
Ensure community engagement. The local community should be involved in the design, planning and implementation of programs. Community engagement also facilitates group financial investment in community projects, and many WORTH projects have a community development component that is selected by group members.
Develop group capacity to ensure sustainability. Projects should devote time and resources to develop group capacity for self-management, including mechanisms to promote transparency and flexibility such as updated bylaws, flexible management tools and internal monitoring to retain good leadership and enhance member participation. Groups can be supported to develop linkages, local networks, and contacts with local government, NGOs and community leaders to respond to evolving group and community needs over time.
Promote a holistic and inclusive model to reach vulnerable members. Sometimes, women can be excluded from groups or may drop out, due to limited outreach, high levels of mobility or social biases. To address this, projects can prioritize education as an equal goal to income generation and encourage traditionally marginalized women to join, including through better outreach, community engagement and adaptation of program materials to meet the needs of different group members.
Ensure continual program monitoring and evaluation. Programs can use technology such as the myWORTH mobile application to improve data collection, centralize data and house metrics. In addition, program evaluation should aim to capture the broader programming benefits across sectors and units of analysis, including through qualitative methods. The review contributed to a revised WORTH framework that has been developed to improve quality of program evaluation and promote a better understanding of the range of benefits that WORTH brings for individuals, households and communities.
Pact’s WORTH program is a sustainable and impactful model for economic empowerment, particularly for women and young people. Programs continue to adapt and innovate to effectively reach and retain group members and empower them to develop sustainable livelihoods that enhance individual and household wellbeing, alongside community-led engagement. Looking forward, we will continue to ensure high quality of WORTH programming while pushing for innovation – such as through continued scaling of the myWORTH mobile application, strengthening linkages to formal financial services, adapting the model for highly mobile as well as urban populations, and ensuring accessibility for harder-to-reach groups in the countries where Pact operates.
The link to the full technical brief can be found here.
Emma Willenborg is a Livelihoods Officer at Pact. Livelihoods is part of Pact’s Sustainable Markets programming, which also includes Pact’s work on the environment, energy and artisanal and small-scale mining.