Sustainable development: Twenty years after their start, Pact’s first WORTH groups remain

July 14, 2016
Two members of the Jyoti WORTH group greet each other at the beginning of a meeting in rural Nepal.

They call themselves the Jyoti group – Nepali for “the light.”

They chose the name the day of their first meeting, in 1996, when none of them knew each other.

There were 25 of them back then, all of them women in their late teens or twenties, and all of them Tharu, an indigenous Nepali ethnic group.

What bound them most, though, was circumstance: They were all poor, all dependent on husbands. None had ever gone to school or earned money. Most rarely left the house.

But deep down they were brave, and when Pact invited them to join a new village banking and empowerment program, they said yes. They were among the first to ever take part in WORTH, a model that brings women together in groups of 20 to 25 to save money, make loans to each other and start small businesses. Groups also receive literacy, numeracy and other trainings.

Jyoti’s current chairwoman, Manturia Devi Chaudhary, collects savings deposits during a recent meeting.

The group's members greet each other at the start of the meeting.

Two decades later, Pact has implemented WORTH in more than a dozen countries, and in a testament to the model’s sustainability, the women of Jyoti are still together, even though it’s been years since Pact’s assistance ended.

And they are far from the only ones.

“Six years after we stopped supporting and facilitating them, we went back to some of our earliest groups and found that two-thirds of them were still functioning,” says Carrie Keju, Pact’s livelihoods director. “Even more stunning was that many groups had started entirely new groups. All on their own, they’d taught WORTH to women we’d never had contact with. So the overall attrition rate is extremely low.”

In the beginning, WORTH was known as Pact’s Women’s Empowerment Program. The model’s power lies in the capacity it builds among participants to improve their own lives. Unlike micro-lending and many other development programs, WORTH provides no capital or seed money; the only materials groups receive are notebooks for recordkeeping, lock-boxes for storing their savings and ledgers, and WORTH’s curriculum. At weekly meetings, members are required to make small savings deposits to their group’s bank, and when a group’s fund grows large enough, its members may start taking loans. Interest is then paid on members’ savings.

A handful of members have left the Jyoti group since it began, but most remain.

In the beginning, groups are led by Pact empowerment workers who recruit participants, show them the basics and help them elect officers, including a chairwoman, treasurer, secretary and controller. In addition to literacy and numeracy training – many members can’t write their own names when they join – they learn the fundamentals of operating a small business.

With time, they receive additional training tailored to their needs. Women who grow and sell vegetables, for example, learn about pest management and crop rotation to boost their production. For many members, the knowledge, friendship, confidence and income they gain is life-changing.

“It’s incredible how little it takes to totally transform someone’s life,” Keju says. “Many of these women were struggling to feed their children or send them to school, or they had no say in their household. When they start generating income, for the first time they’re economic agents who are changing their communities. You see them come to life.”

A group officer records banking transactions.

Jyoti members count money before making a new loan.  

As WORTH has evolved, it has reached hundreds of thousands of women and become a critical piece of Pact’s integrated approach to development. Across Africa and Asia, Pact has used WORTH to boost women’s involvement in local governance and to spread important information about health, nutrition and sanitation. WORTH has been used to lift people with HIV out of poverty and to improve the lives of vulnerable children. In Vietnam, WORTH members are now using smart phones to access advanced business trainings. In Cambodia, groups are learning to analyze markets and form collaborative enterprises and networks.

For the Jyoti group, a lot has changed over the years. A handful of members have dropped out or migrated away. No longer isolated or dependent, those who remain run successful businesses, mostly raising and selling crops and livestock, and they are among their community’s most active citizens.

Some who were illiterate now read. Rather than marking ledger books with thumbprints as they used to, they sign their names when making deposits and taking loans.

“Before, we didn’t know it was important to save money and to get education,” says Guari Chaudhary, 36. “Now we help each other and have confidence. We used to struggle with domestic violence, but even this has changed.”

The group’s only non-original member, Chaudhary joined around 2001, taking her mother-in-law’s place after she became ill so the family could continue to access credit and trainings through WORTH.

Jyoti's members have become exceptionally close over the years. Many say they consider each other family. 

A few years later, instead of outside, Jyoti’s members began meeting in a small community hall with mud walls and a tin roof that they built themselves. When they’re not using it, the building hosts other civic activities and events. Jyoti has organized community meetings there to discuss problems including domestic abuse and low school attendance rates.

“As our own positions have been raised, we are working to raise the positions of others, too,” Chaudhary says. “We are encouraging parents to send their children to school and men to give more rights to women.”

They’ve also advocated for the wider use of toilets rather than open defecation and helped to upgrade local roads.

After Pact’s assistance ended, the women kept going, making their own ledgers and savings books and sharing knowledge among themselves.

“For many years,” says a member dressed in bright purple, “no one has supported us but us.”

Two Jyoti members tend to crops they planted with a WORTH loan. 

While Jyoti has not brought in new members to replace those who’ve left, many groups do. And some have spawned entirely new groups, training them on their own.

Many of Jyoti’s members are now their households’ main breadwinners. As their incomes have increased, so has the group’s mandatory savings amount, from 5 rupees per week originally to today’s 100 per month. Together, Jyoti’s members have about 850,000 rupees in savings (roughly $8,000), most of which is out on loan.

Jyoti’s current chairwoman, Manturia Devi Chaudhary, was 27 when the group formed. A mother of four, she now runs a profitable business raising pigs. She says the support she has received from fellow members over the years has been as vital as the additional income.

They’ve offered each other advice and celebrated successes and holidays together. They’ve seen each other become mothers, grandmothers and, in a couple of cases, widows.

“I don’t know what I would do without this,” says Manturia Devi Chaudhary. “For me and for my children, a great change came.”

Manturia Devi Chaudhary didn't know how to write her name when she joined Jyoti 20 years ago. Now she runs a successful small business. 

After a recent WORTH meeting, Jyoti members leave the community hall they built together.

Yet much has also stayed the same.

At each of their meetings, Jyoti’s members still sit in a tight circle on woven mats and chat and laugh as they wait for everyone to arrive. They still start with savings deposits before moving to loan payments and the issuance of new loans. They still use the same metal lock-box that Pact gave them at their first meeting.

As for how they’ve managed to stay together for nearly 20 years, they don’t seem to see it as anything special.

“We followed the training and we found that this group was helping us,” says one member, a child in her lap.

“So we just kept going.”


Photos by Brian J. Clark for Pact.