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Policy and Research Briefs

Savings Group Member Resilience after Crises: Lessons for Compounding Crises from COVID-19 in Nigeria and Uganda

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, CARE has invested in listening to the voices of women and girls from vulnerable groups to understand the challenges they face, what they need, and the ways in which they respond and lead throughout the pandemic. This data-driven listening exercise, called Women Respond, has shown the need to lift the voices of women and girls, by using real time data to support community needs. Women Respond contributed to the global understanding that the effects of the pandemic are compounded amid other shocks and stressors, such as climate change, and conflict (De Milliano et al., 2022). CARE partnered with the Evidence Consortium on Women’s Groups (ECWG) to expand Women Respond by focusing specifically on the voices of female and male members of Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) as part of the Women (in VSLA) Respond sub-initiative. This study uses four rounds of quantitative panel data and two rounds of qualitative data on the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on VSLA members. This brief specifically focuses on the results of the Women (in VSLA) Respond sub-initiative in Nigeria and Uganda. This study examines the enduring economic, social, and psychosocial challenges of VSLAs and their members during a period of prolonged and compounded shocks that started with the COVID-19 pandemic and the extent to which VSLAs may have mitigated these challenges.


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Typology of women’s groups working towards economic empowerment in South Asia

Women’s groups models vary widely across contexts, but context-specific documentation is limited. When such documentation is available, researchers, policy makers, and funders often describe groups inconsistently. The South Asia Gender Innovation Lab (SAR GIL) partnered with the Evidence Consortium on Women’s Groups (ECWG) to develop a typology that can guide researchers and practitioners in describing women’s groups by using specific characteristics. The typology presented in this brief focuses on economic women’s groups models implemented in South Asia. It identifies implementation models, key characteristics, and their implications for investing in women’s groups to improve economic outcomes in South Asia, using program documentation and evaluation research.

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The Return on Investment of Self- Help Groups in India: Evidence from the JEEViKA program in Bihar

Self-help groups (SHGs) are an increasingly popular strategy to promote women's livelihoods and empowerment and improve women's long-term economic outcomes in South Asia, especially in India. This study estimates the return on investment (ROI) of a large-scale SHG program (JEEViKA) in the state of Bihar, India, operated by the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM). To estimate the cost-effectiveness of the program, we estimated three ROIs – (1) Early phase ROI; (2) Late phase ROI; and (3) Full ROI. We find that 1 INR invested in the program increased consumption by 0.75 INR under the most conservative assumption, and by 4.9 INR under the least conservative assumption. Our estimation also indicates that the most conservative assumption can be reasonably ruled out because it does not align with the observed outcomes. In other words, we can reasonably but cautiously conclude that the program had a positive ROI after seven years.

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Savings group membership was associated with smaller increases in food insecurity in Nigeria in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19

Food insecurity worsened significantly following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Data from high-frequency phone surveys implemented as part of the Living Standards Measurement Study - Integrated Survey on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA) – indicate that food insecurity was particularly high in Nigeria. The health and labor impacts of COVID-19, and some policy and other responses to contain its spread, have contributed to supply chain disruptions and likely exacerbated food insecurity. Savings groups may help mitigate some of the negative consequences of COVID-19. This study seeks to answer three main research questions on the association between savings group membership and resilience of Nigerian households after COVID-19: 1) What is the association between savings group membership and changes in savings during the COVID-19 pandemic? 2) What is the association between savings group membership and changes in access to credit during the COVID-19 pandemic? 3) What is the association between savings group membership and changes in food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic?

This study finds that over 70 percent of adults in Nigeria were impacted by moderate or severe food insecurity in the immediate aftermath of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020. Households with female savings group members were, on average, 3.7 percentage points less likely to report that they faced any food security challenges than households without female group members after controlling for various baseline and demographic characteristics between April and August 2020. Access to savings and credit likely contributed to the association between savings group membership and food security between April and August 2020.

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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected VSLAs and Their Members: Qualitative Evidence From Nigeria and Uganda

The COVID-19 pandemic has further entrenched preexisting inequalities, with women bearing the brunt of the social, educational, and economic consequences. CARE launched the Women Respond sub-initiative  in October 2020 to better understand the unique challenges COVID-19 presented in order to guide programming and advocacy aiming to improve gender equality. Quantitative descriptive and regression analyses revealed that VSLA members in Nigeria and Uganda both experienced economic challenges caused by COVID-19-induced restrictions, but the consequences were greater in Uganda because of the longer lockdown. Savings and other women’s group types contributed to mitigating some of the negative economic consequences of COVID-19 on individual savings group members. This study presents complementary in-depth qualitative research findings to provide more context and gain deeper insights into the way in which and the reasons why the pandemic and the associated lockdown affected VSLAs and their members.

This study indicates that: 
1) COVID-19 caused strains on businesses and livelihoods, resulting in food insecurity.
2)  Households in both countries used a variety of strategies to cope with the COVID-19 induced crisis, including selling assets and seeking help from extended family and neighbors.
3) While some households continued savings, most households had to suspend savings during the pandemic, access to credit was limited and respondents who borrowed were sometimes left in debt.
4) Respondents indicated that COVID-19 increased time spent with family, but spousal conflict, including but not limited to gender-based violence, increased.
5) Respondents reported economic benefits of VSLAs that partially continued during the pandemic.

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Scoping Review of the Evidence on Women’s Groups in Uganda

Communal life and communal activities are deeply rooted in African culture. Both internally driven and externally supported development activities have long drawn on this communal tradition, for example to build village-level infrastructure or to organize groups to clear land. Across sub-Saharan Africa, groups come together for many different purposes, such as funeral or burial societies, around various livelihood activities, and for savings and credit.

This report focuses on what we can learn from studies of community-level women’s groups in Uganda. We present the findings of a scoping review to examine the evidence base and evidence gaps on women’s groups in Uganda. We appraised the evidence base on the impact, cost-effectiveness, and implementation of women’s groups in Uganda to understand both the evidence that exists and the evidence gaps that remain. In addition, we present analysis of the pathways through which women’s groups can achieve their various objectives. We define a women’s group as a group of women who voluntarily come together to take part in joint activities around a common purpose, such as savings, livelihoods, or health. Although savings and other microfinance groups are the most prominent women’s groups in Uganda, Ugandan women also participate in various other groups for different purposes, primarily with a focus on health and agriculture. Results from a recent nationally representative survey showed that 58% of Ugandan communities have at least one woman’s group, and over half of communities had savings and credit groups which frequently have a majority women membership (Uganda Bureau of Statistics, 2018, pp. 184). Further, an assessment of women’s savings group participation rates using FinScope survey data indicates that 39% of Ugandan women participate in savings groups (de Hoop et al., 2020).

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Taking stock of the evidence on women’s groups in Nigeria

In Nigeria, different types of groups exist, including women’s groups, and groups focused on agriculture, savings, credit, religious and social pursuits, and business associations, all of which are avenues through which to deliver interventions that aim to improve women’s economic and social empowerment (Desai et al., 2019). However, only limited evidence is available on the impact of informal savings groups in sub-Saharan Africa despite their high prevalence, especially in rural areas. 

In this brief, based on a review of available evidence, we find that: 1) Women’s aggregate informal savings group participation increased throughout Nigeria between 2010 and 2018, but there is evidence of large drop-out rates, possibly because of low within-group trust. 2) One potential way to reduce drop-out rates is to transform informal savings groups into formal savings groups. 3) Evidence from a randomized controlled trial and phone-based surveys during COVID-19 indicates that implementers in Nigeria can harness Village Savings and Loan Associations and group mentorship programs to improve women’s resilience and food security during and after large nationwide shocks, such as COVID-19.


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Savings Group Member Resilience Over the Course of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Evidence From Nigeria and Uganda

The COVID-19 pandemic and some of the associated policy responses (e.g., lockdowns and gradual relaxations) had considerable gendered impacts that reversed some of the recent progress in gender equality. Women and girls experienced larger adverse consequences along health, economic, social, and educational dimensions than men and boys, though mortality rates for COVID‑19 are higher for men. Evidence from studies in diverse African contexts indicates that savings groups have mitigated some of the negative economic effects of COVID‑19-induced lockdowns and other restrictions on women and girls. In this brief, the Evidence Consortium on Women’s Groups (ECWG) and CARE examine the resilience of VSLA members in Nigeria and Uganda. We assess how savings and access to credit of VSLA members were affected by the COVID‑19 pandemic and how VSLA functioning and gender correlate with personal savings and credit 1 year after the pandemic started. We find that: 1) the longer COVID‑19-induced lockdown in Uganda likely contributed to a greater need for income or livelihood support in Uganda than in Nigeria, 2) VSLA meetings occurred as they had before the pandemic for 56% of the VSLA members in Nigeria and 14% of the VSLA members in Uganda, whereas 27% of VSLA members in Nigeria and 47% in Uganda reported adjusted meetings. 3) regularly functioning VSLAs likely can contribute to VSLA member resilience, and 4) decreasing savings and limited access to credit may limit VSLAs’ ability to mitigate the negative economic consequences of the pandemic.

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Convergence of Social protection Programmes in India: The Impact of Self-Help Groups on Access to and Employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme

The Evidence Consortium on Women’s Groups conducted a study to examine the convergence between large-scale self-help groups and public works programming in Bihar. We use publicly available administrative data from the National Rural Livelihoods Mission and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and merge those data with data from a randomised controlled trial (RCT). The combined dataset allows for an instrumental variable regression analysis to examine the impact of the number of SHG members on access to job cards and employment under MGNREGS. We find large and statistically significant effects indicating that an increase of 100 SHG members results in 26 additional MGNREGS job cards applied for, and 14 additional households that are provided employment under MGNREGS. We find larger impact estimates on access to job cards and employment for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe households, and evidence for similar effects for women and men. We present the results in a brief.

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Self-help groups and COVID-19: Effects on and challenges for the National Rural Livelihoods Mission in India

The COVID-19 pandemic and some of the associated policy responses have had significant, negative impacts on women’s lives around the world, and in India (Agarwal, 2021). India experienced three COVID-19 waves, including a devastating Delta variant surge that peaked in March and April 2021. The Evidence Consortium on Women’s Groups developed a brief that focuses on the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially the impacts on members of women’s self-help groups (SHGs) before the Delta variant peaked in India.  We synthesize evidence from various studies on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on SHG functioning as well as the responses from and through SHGs and their federations under the DAY-NRLM up until March 2021. The findings capture lessons about how to adapt SHGs and other women’s group policies in response to large covariate shocks, such as the first year of COVID-19; this brief does not include an analysis of the effects of the subsequent Delta variant, however, which resulted in widespread direct health and economic shocks that exacerbated some of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic analyzed in this brief.  

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