In rural low-income contexts, savings groups offer an opportunity to alleviate credit constraints and gender disparities in access to credit. They can also promote women’s economic empowerment, which is defined as having both the ability to succeed and advance economically and the power to make and act on economic decisions. On their own, however, savings groups are often insufficient to fully support women's economic empowerment because (1) members—especially women living in poverty—generally lack enough cash for the group to invest in high productivity activities; (2) savings groups often lack access to quality training, information, and markets to support their productive activities; and (3) women in savings groups also lack sufficient voice in their communities to collectively address socio-cultural constraints to economic empowerment.
The Strengthening Afghan Women’s Economic Empowerment Project (SWEEP), a US$2.74 million project, addresses these constraints on several fronts. It is implemented by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), an international non-governmental organization (NGO) which has invested community-based savings groups (CBSGs) in Afghanistan since the early 2000s. The intervention combines a graduation approach with a safe space delivery system. It forms ClustersNote that the term “cluster” is used to mean two things in this document. In the context of the program, 4-12 CBSGs are linked into Clusters for the purpose of the clustering intervention. In the context of the evaluation, a cluster-RCT also happens to be the standard research term for a RCT that randomly assigns whole groups or areas (“clusters”) to different treatment groups. To avoid confusion, we will capitalize the first letter of the word “cluster” whenever we speak about the savings groups platforms. of CBSGs and uses these Clusters as a platform to (1) create and manage a revolving loan fund financed with external capital, (2) deliver skills training and business-related services, and (3) build networks among members and encourage market linkages. As community-owned and managed institutions, the Clusters can play an important advocacy role in support of women’s voice within their communities. Therby, the intervention, on the one hand, aims to ease credit, educational, and social constraints faced by poor women in rural Afghnistan; and, on the other hand, it strives to create safe environments to access these loans, skills, and information while building business-specific female-only networks. The proposed study is not designed to investiagte the effects of each individual intervention component separately (e.g., capital injections, micro credit, various types of training and technical assistance, grouping of market interests, etc.), which have each been studied at length. Instead our contribution to the literature is to comprehensively combine and intensify previous approaches to remove many important constraints to female ecomic success simultaneously.
We investigate the effects of the intervention on outcomes related to business performance, female economic empowerment, and well-being.