What Happens to Community Projects after Organizations Leave?

Post Written By Annemijn Sondaal

“It’s not a drug, it’s not a vaccine, it’s not a device. It’s women, working together, solving problems, saving lives” -Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, May 2013

Participatory women’s groups all over the world have created spaces for women to engage in dialogue, exchange their ideas and experiences and spur them to take action to improve their community’s health. The Institute of Global Health, University College London and its’ partners including Women and Children First, have shown that participatory women’s groups can, with participation of at least a third of pregnant women, cut maternal deaths in half and newborn deaths by over a third.

Women’s groups are run and attended by local women (and sometimes men), mobilising local resources to address local problems. This type of capacity-building and community-mobilising intervention is perhaps the most likely to sustain after the supporting organisation leaves, but organisations rarely investigate the long-term effect of interventions or their sustainability. This means that little is known about optimal times and methods to withdraw support, the capacities needed, and support mechanisms necessary for sustainability.
Women and Children First2

Mother and Infant Activities (MIRA) has worked with participatory women’s groups in rural Makwanpur, Nepal in collaboration with the Institute of Global Health since 2001. A paid local woman, supported by a supervisor, ran each group. She was also given a meeting manual and training. In 2008, MIRA enacted a handover strategy when the project ran to the end of it’s funding. Twelve to eighteen months passed with no intervention, and we were interested to find out what had happened to the groups. Some essential questions asked were:

  • Had they continued meeting and organising activities?
  • How had they sustained their activities?
  • If they had stopped meeting, why?

The result?

80% of the women’s groups were still ‘active’ (groups who formally conduct meetings, work on strategies and keep meeting minutes). Anecdotal evidence suggests that these groups are still active to this day.


Local importance: Women had experienced how the groups improved maternal and newborn survival. This motivated them to continue meeting and enable the next generation to learn about how to look after themselves and their babies.

Financial independence: Many groups had established maternal and child health funds. Being able to save, and have some financial independence attracted women to the group and motivated them to continue meeting. One woman told us: “When we save, we don’t have to depend on our husbands. We don’t have to beg for money.” Also, we found that many groups had increased their fund to support community activities unrelated to maternal and newborn health.

Leadership capacity: Active groups were led by a strong female community health volunteer or community leader. Or members themselves were confident in owning and leading the group. One group member told us: “MIRA showed us the way. They showed us the right track, and we are now confident to walk that track. Because of this, the group is still running.”

Those groups who were not meeting, or meeting infrequently felt that they had not been given enough time to reach the level of confidence and capacity necessary to continue activities and meetings. These groups told us they wanted more skill-based training: “If there would be [skill-based] training for the chairperson, treasurer, secretary on how to run the group, than we would have planned to do more.”

It is important to consider how interventions can continue after a project support stops. In Makwanpur, the participatory nature of the group and local embeddedness were not enough to sustain groups. They also needed leadership capacity, a unifying activity (such as the fund) and a strong belief in the value of their meeting to sustain.

Failures in Finance: Lessons Learned in Micro-lending and Savings

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”. Part of this is based on the notion of accelerating ‘gender parity’ – defined by UNICEF as the difference between males and females in terms of access to education, and consequently, economic opportunity. At Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU), we focus on these two primary aspects of development work, which we believe are the pillars of gender equality. The latter is of particular importance for young women, who upon securing economic independence gain the ability to participate in society and can avoid financial reliance on men. The need for financial and skills-based support was brought forward to GUIU by the women themselves, and this has attributed to the growing success of the programs – but not without some mistakes along the way. These were nevertheless, failures GUIU had an opportunity to learn from.

What are the issues?


Women’s financial access and inclusion as a tool to alleviate poverty has long been a hot topic, and at the heart of micro-lending, micro-credit, and group savings. GUIU is no stranger to the concept. In Uganda as in many other places, below a certain income range, it becomes increasingly difficult for women to open accounts at traditional banks and receive loans and other services. Lack of formal documentation is also another barrier. Literature and organizations such as Muhammed Yunus’s ‘Banker to the Poor’ and Kiva respectively, are often pointed to for best practices and expertise. GUIU realizes that without economic autonomy, women are unable to meet the basic needs of their children and themselves. In January 2014, we established the Young Women’s Economic Empowerment Program (YWEEP) for young women and mothers ages 16 – 35. The objective is to promote increased income generation through providing access to financial services, literacy, and management.

The Failures:

  • Small start-up capital: GUIU gave nine young women small start-up grants of $40 USD to enable them to start or build on existing business enterprises. However, we found that sudden expenses such as the compromised health of a child or school fees would take priority, and only a few of the women’s businesses were enhanced by the grant.
  • Revolving savings group: The young women also requested that we facilitate a more creative and locally-based financing model – the revolving savings group – where GUIU acted as a bank for the women. The initiative was spurred on by a group of young women seeking a safe space to manage their finances, generate investment capital for their businesses, as well as cover basic necessities within their households. GUIU established the revolving savings group wherein each woman contributed a small amount of money to the group savings, and another woman would receive the cumulative contribution each week. The group started off well, but with time many of the women were finding it difficult to make the payment each week.

Our solutions:

  • girlupuganda_financefailures_2Sewing our Futures Project/ Mazuri Designs: Rather than continuing to provide start-up capital to women, we followed an idea from one of the ladies to offer vocational trainings in tailoring and sewing to generate income. The Sewing our Futures Project started as a 6-month training program in March 2015 and opportunity for three young women to acquire vocational seamstress skills. At the same time, we identified the need to create a sustainable business that could hire the recently trained women and support Girl Up Uganda’s educational and leadership programs. Therefore, the project evolved into a fashion design social enterprise, with an independent website and public face – Mazuri Designs.
  • girlupuganda_financefailures_3Savings group: Since the revolving nature of the savings group did not suite the financial capacities of the members, GUIU restructured the group whereby each woman can save independently of each other and do not feel pressure to pay each week. Their savings are recorded in their savings booklets. This strategy has proven to be powerful — fostering accountability, transparency, trust, and a means to encourage saving.

In November 2015, Girl Up Uganda opened a savings bank account for the funds collected by the members since many of the women lack the proper identification to do so on their own. At the end of the year, one woman saved 1,470,000 UGX ($440 USD), showing the potential of having access to financial savings services.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us not forget that as we step it up for gender equality with our various programmatic work, there are challenges and failures that we must accept along the way, and we can share with one another to create a strong women’s movement that is honest and transparent. As GUIU utilizes a people-centered approach – focused on local ownership and participation for sustainability – we are constantly listening to the needs and responses of the women, which shows us that not all programs work effectively. As a growing organization, we will continue to learn and expand with our beneficiaries leading the change, so  they can access economic opportunities just like the men can!

Cover Photo Credit: Got Credit, Flickr Creative Commons