Sampark – Experience Report 2016

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August – September 2016

by Adriane Razafindrafito

The organization

Sampark is a non-profit organization whose aim is to improve the livelihood of the most vulnerable. They are currently working on various development projects: in the region of Koppal, they work on women empowerment through microfinance, improvement of the education given to children in government schools and training of young people to become strong and responsible leaders. In Bangalore city, they are supporting migrant workers on construction sites and their family by helping them to regularise their situation (obtaining ID cards, understanding their contract and their rights…) and by building and running day-nurseries for their children. I chose to work on their project of women empowerment through microfinance in the region of Koppal, located in North Karnataka.

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The project

In 1998, Sampark started working with women in Koppal. They believe that access to financial services can end the financial exclusion of the poor and bring long-lasting development and empowerment. They built Community-Based Organizations called Self-Help-Groups (SHGs) and cooperatives in which women engage together in saving and loan activities for livelihood needs and income-generating investments. Alone, a woman in a rural area such as Koppal has a small chance to get sufficient and profitable loans for daily needs (marriage, illness…) and small incentives to invest her money. Joining those groups gives the members a voice, allows them to be credible to banks and create opportunities to escape the clutches of informal moneylenders. To make the impact of SHGs and cooperatives sustainable, Sampark provides capacity-building and social support to the women together with the financial services. The women are taught the importance of groups, they learn why they should pool their savings, and they are trained on how to monitor savings and loans, and how to work with accounting systems. They are also trained on Income-Generating Activities (small scale businesses such as tailoring, hotel and general store, handcrafting activities…) and they are informed on the governmental schemes and social help that are available to them.

SHGs are a groups of 15 to 20 women who pool their savings in a group bank account and receive loans from the cooperative level in the name of the group. A cooperative is made of several SHGs and builds a capital through savings collected from the groups and through various other independent activities (small businesses, social activities…). Those cooperatives then work as a “bank” for the groups: they give access to relatively big amounts of loans that the women use in long-term investments such as education or individual businesses. The board members of the cooperatives assess each loan request and closely follow the use of money to ensure repayment. Today, Sampark monitors four cooperatives, under which there are 592 SHGs spread over 93 villages.

My work

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I was asked to lead a qualitative research to assess if the model used by Sampark, i.e. building SHGs and cooperatives, really empowered the women and if the model is a sustainable one. This project had to be done by an external party and not by a member of the organisation to ensure objectivity. I was supervised by the project manager and responsible for an intern called Ishani Tikku. The first days, the project manager initiated me on how to proceed with a research paper. In the first two weeks, I collected information on the organisation and its activities, and on the evolution of its strategy over time by reading reports and interacting with Ishani and other members of the NGO. I also read several articles to build an understanding of ‘empowerment’ and to find indicators to assess it.

This helped me to start planning the data collection I needed for the paper. I prepared a questionnaire and scheduled the field work. On my third week, two other interns (from Mumbai) joined the NGO, and one of them was assigned to work with me. Together we prepared the research design (sample size, women to interview, areas to cover…) and went to Koppal for ten days to collect the information we needed. We organised semi-structured interviews (defined set of questions followed by open discussions).  We asked the women questions on the institution building process (how they started the SHGs, who convinced them to do so, what type of training they received and from whom) and we tried to see if it allowed them to be economically, socially and politically empowered or not.

In total, we interviewed staff members from 3 cooperatives, 6 SHGs and 16 women during those ten days. We went to around twenty villages to meet them, and we tried to interview women from all backgrounds (old VS recent members of SHGs, most vulnerable VS more financially stable women…). Despite the language barrier, we succeeded to collect the information we needed and at my surprise, most of the women were totally opened to answer and discuss. Sampark’s staff members were translating from Kannada, the local language in Karnataka State, to English.

Then we came back and during my last week of internship in Sampark, the other intern and I summarised the information collected and planned the writing of the paper.

A complete research paper with data collection could not have been finished in a six-weeks project, therefore I agreed with Sampark that I would keep writing it back in Switzerland. We are currently working together through emails and other communication channels to get things done for the paper. Ishani will continue to supervise my work, and the other intern will collect relevant literature before he leaves Sampark.

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Living conditions and expenses

Sampark helped us (me and another intern from St.Gallen University) to find a place to live. We lived in a Paying-Guest (PG) room not far from the office. The price was 11000 Rs (approx.. CHF 160) per month and included breakfast and dinner. The office was closeby, so we did not need to spend money on commuting. We worked from Monday to Saturday (Saturday is a working day in many offices in India).

During our 10 days in Koppal, we lived in Sampark’s office there, we went out to eat (less than 100Rps per meal) or cooked at home. Life was much less expensive than in Bangalore, and we travelled on a motorbike to reach the villages.

Outside work, I did not have time to travel a lot, but I could visit Mysore and Hampi with the other interns. Going to the villages was already a good adventure.

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Personal impression

I found the work of Sampark remarkable and inspiring. Discussing with the women that were there since Sampark started building groups in 1998 showed me how much they have done there and the real impact that the NGO had on the women and the villages. Many of them expressed gratefulness to Sampark and the cooperatives. The staff members of the NGO were appreciated and known by most of the women we talked to, which made the discussion easier and let the women open up to us. We were invited to their home for the interviews and often their family and relatives were around, so we learned about their way of living. One of the most interesting thing was to learn about the Indian caste system. We have seen how it is today and we had the opportunity to meet and interview women from the lowest castes. They were also able to benefit a lot from the SHGs. The women were all treated equally. However, I was surprised to see that the caste system is still strongly present in the Indian society. The villages still separate low and general cast people and despite governmental schemes to bring equality, my observation is that lower caste people seem to remain poorer and less educated in most of the cases.

Concerning the sustainability of the work of Sampark, we observed that most of the SHGs and the cooperatives are independent and do not require a lot of help from Sampark anymore. The initial trainings that they provided to the women allowed the organisation to build a strong basis (strong leaders) for the SHGs and cooperatives. The women engaged in the board of the cooperatives know how to manage the attribution of the loans: they debate alone (without the help of Sampark) on topics such as rate of interest to charge to the SHGs or what businesses deserve the loans. They also play the role of trainers and supervisors of the SHGs and the SHGs internally ensure the that the groups work well (no late repayment of loans to cooperative, good relationship among members, individual support to the women…). Last, the cooperatives play a strong role in improving the village life since they organize social activities needed in the village. In my opinion, Sampark succeeded in creating a sustainable model. They helped to empower many women until today, and I believe that they will keep empowering a lot more in the future since the SHG concept is successful and known among the women of this area. I could not have lived a better experience and despite the less comfortable environment and the long hours of work there, Koppal was the best part of my internship.

Beside the field work in Koppal, I learned a lot about how an NGO in the field of development works internally, and I enjoyed that they allowed me to see their project with the migrant workers in Bangalore even if I was not working on it.

Last, Ishani keeps teaching me how to write and she helps me a lot to improve my English. I also enjoyed a lot the working environment in the organisation and the presence of other interns. The staff in Bangalore and Koppal were all very friendly, and Sampark is like a little family. They all value the work that they do very much, they totally commit to it and constantly try to improve their projects. They were always asking for our feedbacks (interns) and involved us in their daily activities.

I hope I will manage to finish well the paper I am writing, and I am grateful to Sampark for this experience. 

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