A summer internship in India: My final post


Self Help Groups and Leadership Development: An Analysis
by Andrew DeFeo


This project is the culmination of the 10 weeks I spent in central India with my host organization Samaj Pragati Sahayog. Based in Madhya Pradesh, Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS) works to support the livelihoods of rural communities and facilitates access to government assistance programs intended to help individuals and families. One of those projects is a micro-lending program that promotes all-women’s “Self-Help Groups” (SHGs) – where women come together and use collective savings as a shared lending mechanism. From hundreds of these groups, leaders have emerged who have not only helped spread the prevalence of micro-lending groups, but who have taken the lead in addressing many social, economic and political problems facing their communities. I wanted to know what made these women different from their peers, how their experiences as leaders have affected how they see themselves and the world around them, and what future visions they have for themselves and their communities. Furthermore, I sought to analyze how their stated motivations and values compared to the mission and values of core members of SPS – who seek to empower women through financial stability and increased access to various sociopolitical networks. Finally, these women will be undergoing training this fall from SPS staff so that they may be better informed to act as leaders within their communities – the findings of this project should support SPS staff in the design and implementation of those trainings.


Initially I interviewed available members SPS’ staff in order to establish a consistent theme of intent that would roughly define the mission and values of the organization. Following these preliminary interviews, I was able to develop an interview form to be used when meeting with selected leaders.
Three Federations, each of which oversees between 2500 and 4000 women, respectively make up the central leadership body within the Self-Help Group framework. These Federations are legal bodies organized in order to (1) manage the logistical and financial aspects of the SHGs and (2) address issues that affect women and their communities. Out of a possible sample size of 45 women I chose 15: five from each of the three Federations. In order to assess leadership I used individual interviews, arranged by my translator and project-partner Jyotsna. Each interview was broken up into two parts – each part taking approximately one and a half to two hours to complete. The questions were chosen as a means to gain information about each woman’s experience with her SHG and with her Federation; the perceived financial and non-financial benefits for her and her family; the perceived responsibilities involved in leadership; and the motivations and values that guided her involvement. Furthermore, each woman was asked to identify the groups and institutions that she interacts with on a regular basis through a visual exercise. The purpose of this exercise was to identify each woman’s awareness of sociopolitical institutions and to identify ways in which each woman could better engage those institutions for the benefit of her family and community.
From a purely academic standpoint, this type of research project would be considered exploratory. My partner and I systematically collected information through structured and formalized interviews, but we did not construct or carry out the study in a way that would allow us to call our findings statistically significant. Our hope was that the interviews we conducted would better inform SPS in its continued work with women and their families. We conducted our analysis by combing through the recorded interviews and identifying themes. In addition we compared statements from the women interviewed to statements made by founding members of SPS – specifically focusing on similarities


An excerpt of the main narratives and themes:

(1) Leaders demonstrated use of practical skills/information gained by participating in SHGs to manage personal finances, start small businesses, free themselves from relationships with unfair moneylenders and to directly question local government institutions
(2) Leaders identified the need for mobility and education, either formal or informal, as essential precursors for successful leadership among women and their communities
(3) Leaders identified SPS sponsored trips to surrounding villages and states as positively influential to their efforts in developing livelihood initiatives and ongoing organizing work
(4) Leaders reported the continued need for sustainable livelihood initiatives that respond to the risk-prone work that many of them engage in
(5) Leaders repeatedly expressed a gratefulness for an increased sense of identity beyond one previously restricted to their immediate and extended families

In addition to these findings, my partner and I identified areas – such as inconsistencies in knowledge of local politics – where increased education efforts facilitated by SPS can further empower these leaders. This and other information gained through these interviews will inform future workshops and trainings held with these and other women participating in the SHG program. By and large, the values and capacities of the leaders is consistent with those expressed by the core members of SPS’ own leadership, which is encouraging when considering the future of community development in this region.


It was a truly unique experience to spend 10 weeks in a rural, predominantly agrarian setting in central India. It was even more unique, as a white, American male to be able to speak intimately with a group of women, largely illiterate and of tribal and ‘low-caste’ backgrounds. I will risk sounding overly sentimental when I say that my greatest lesson was that hope should not be lost when considering the potential of a group of people to empower themselves when given the means. It is true that many institutional and cultural circumstances still limit the potential for these women to enjoy personal, economic and social freedoms that should be available to all in what is called the world’s largest democracy (India). Politics of poverty, caste, religion and education all contribute to the marginalization of these women and their families. However, it is not without joy and openness that these women have worked to better their position in society. Samaj Pragati Sahayog has been a direct influence, from my observations, in helping to create a more fertile physical and cultural space – one that allows women to speak with more informed and powerful voices. My hope: that I can take tangible strength from the anecdotes that have been shared with me and use that to influence my work as a future Social Worker in my own communities.

Thank you to the staff and founding members of Samaj Pragati Sahayog and the staff and supporters of CASI and the IIP at Penn for making this internship possible.

Below, the illustrated network of Dinabai, a Federation Leader who humbly seeks to create a better life for her family and her community.


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