LEARNING CONVERSATIONS Many of us learn through stories—in fact, some of our best learning moments stay long in our memories because we experienced them through a story shared by a friend, a teacher or a favorite relative. These stories provoked our thinking. They were relevant to our lives. Through them, we saw the world differently. Some of us may have even changed our actions because of a few good stories. Learning Conversations are stories. They are short parables with many right answers. Learning Conversations are enjoyable to facilitate. They prompt discussion and inspire action, opening new vistas for villagers to help themselves. Learning Conversations are simple, 30-minute group discussions.1 A trained facilitator uses a 2- to 3page Learning Conversation Guide to introduce thought-provoking ideas to a group on a specific topic relevant to the lives of its members. The Learning Conversation Guides contain a brief story or activity about a problem to solve. The group hears the problem and discusses possible solutions. The group then discusses how to apply the solutions to similar problems faced by their own members. At the end of the discussion, the members are encouraged to make a commitment to action. However, more than addressing any one specific issue, Learning Conversations present the group a problem-solving process that allows them to explore any issue they choose to address. The process of identifying a problem or issue of concern, reflecting on its causes and consequences, considering possible solutions and motivating to action, can be applied to whatever question is brought to or raised by the group. Members own the process and, thus, employ it to address evolving needs and concerns specific to their local context and experience. Because of the Learning Conversation methodology’s simplicity, flexibility, and replicability, it is an excellent tool for institutions seeking to support their clients in behavior change. Learning Conversations offer a number of benefits to organizations that use them:  They represent a multipurpose tool that is easily disseminated at low cost.  The process used to facilitate activities and discussions with groups is relevant to a variety of settings.  They can be used with any group that comes together on a regular basis for a specific purpose.  They can be used to help organizations reach poor clients to which they normally might not have access.  They build the confidence levels of the women that participate in them and help them become better consumers of financial and non-financial services. This case study will further present how Learning Conversations were developed and disseminated with Freedom from Hunger’s partner—Catholic Relief Services India—and the potential they hold for Self-Help Groups not only in India, but worldwide.

Freedom from Hunger and CRS India applied years of experience in adult education, group-based learning, and credit and savings systems to develop simple tools that would help local organizations foster self-help among the SHGs.

I. CONTEXT It could be said that the goal for development is simple: “Villagers solve their own problems, exercise their rights and attract financial and social resources. Peace, justice and economic development follow. Barring this are divisions among castes and tribes, limited information on rights and resources, and a wholesale lack of self-confidence on the part of women.” Yet, throughout many developing countries there is organic development occurring at the grassroots level that is catalyzing people to remove these barriers to change. Self-Help Groups (hereafter: SHGs) represent one of the most important phenomena to surface in decades, given their scale as a platform for poor people’s development. A. SOCIOECONOMIC OVERVIEW SHGs are self-formed groups of between 15 and 20 individuals, usually women, who come together for a shared purpose. Most commonly, SHGs form to pool small sums of money and, in turn, lend these savings to group members. The women normally live in rural areas, are illiterate, and have very little formal education. According to the latest Demographic and Health Survey (1998–1999), approximately 73 percent of Indian women live in rural locations. 58 percent of them are illiterate, and only 14 percent of them have completed high school. Only 51 percent of women are involved in decisions about their own health. Almost 60 percent have control over some money. The percentage of the population living below the poverty line is 36 percent.2 In the state of Uttar Pradesh alone, where the number of SHGs is flourishing, almost 80 percent of the households are rural. Uttar Pradesh is the largest populated state in India, contributing to almost 17 percent of the national population. 75 percent of the workforce works in agriculture and agricultural activities. Rural poverty is approximately 47 percent. One percent are extremely poor, 12 percent are very poor, and 18 percent are moderately poor. Forty million rural people live below the poverty line.3 Despite the socioeconomic challenges faced by many SHG members, some SHGs have matured into independent, strong, self-managed groups capable of accessing rural or cooperative bank services and starting new SHGs in their communities. They have helped women succeed in local elections and attract resources to their communities. Many have tackled social problems in their villages, such as dowry abuse, rape, and alcoholism. B. PURPOSE OF INTERVENTION Support organizations, including non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations, and local governmental bodies, now recognize the enormous potential SHGs

“India: National Family Health Survey, 1998-99.” October 2000 International Institute for Population Sciences and ORC MACRO. 3 “Development Uttar Pradesh 2005: A Conclave on Investment in Social Development Sector.”


represent in the development of a community. These organizations devote significant efforts to forming groups and building their capacities. Catholic Relief Services (hereafter: CRS) alone estimated in September 2004 that its network of 2,500 partners across India is working with approximately 30,700 SHGs, which represent at a minimum 430,000 members. In addition, government support to SHGs over the past decade has emphasized progressive outreach to vast numbers of poor, rural women across India. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (hereafter: NABARD)4 has a mandate to support SHG members and link them to rural banks and appropriate financial services. Though much can be said of the spontaneous development of SHGs and their abilities to selfmanage and reach out to other poor women and build new SHGs, a variety of limitations exist for the SHG support organizations, the animators, and SHG members: 1. Many SHG support organizations can lack internal capacity or appropriate resources to effectively and efficiently support their SHGs. Many SHG support organizations are located in remote, hard-to-reach areas. However, the tools and training available for SHGs in India are often calibrated to classroom-educated, rural development workers. Consequently, organizations are unable to hire trained field staff to work with SHGs. Yet, even qualified field staff face resource deficits as these formal tools and methods are often complex and less effective and efficient in the SHG context. Because of this reality, CRS also wanted to build the capacity of the SHGs, irrespective of the leaders and support organizations, to enable them to support themselves and help build other SHGs (thus, enabling a “ripple effect”). 2. Animators lack resources and training to be effective service delivery mechanisms. Because field staff may not be adequately prepared to work with SHGs, they can often be an obstacle to SHG success. In assessments conducted by CRS, they discovered that some animators have been gatekeepers of information and that they micromanage their SHG groups’ activities. Much of this can be explained by the SHG’s over-reliance on the animator, but the animator may not have been providing the SHG with opportunities for growth and gaining confidence. 3. SHG members often become over-reliant on the SHG support organization or the animators that support their groups. Consequently, the underlying rationale for SHG— learning to think and act for oneself—is challenged. Additionally, well-meaning animators who have a lot of community trust can often put their groups at financial risk by identifying incorrect business opportunities for their SHGs. As one animator put it, “the animator is king” because of his/her knowledge and skill base compared to that of the SHG members. For example, some animators have been able to convince SHG groups to commit all of their efforts and resources in one product, and when that product fails, the SHG is left with failure and debt. Finally, because animators feel the need to micromanage their groups or feel the need to be deeply involved in SHG activities, they exhaust their time with few SHGs, limiting their breadth of outreach to other possible SHGs. In turn, the SHG support organizations also find themselves playing a much larger role in the development of a group than originally anticipated. As a result, the cost

NABARD, while an apex financial institution, is part of the Indian Government. It coordinates the development of SHG-bank linkages with state-owned rural and cooperative banks across the country.


per beneficiary increases as animators are unable to support increasing numbers of SHGs. SHG animators and support organizations are unable to reach out to un-served or under-served SHGs because they are spending so much time and resources on a few SHGs. In conclusion, because SHG support organizations lack the capacity to fully support the work of their animators, animators are unable to facilitate the growth of self-reliant SHGs. Consequently, some SHGs are left underserved, and some communities of poor women are left un-served. This chain of causality is demonstrated below in Figure 1. Figure 1. Un/Underserved SHGs and Communities

Low capacity, resource-constrained support organizations Increased cost-perbeneficiary for the support organization Ill-equipped animators

Financial/social risks to SHG members

Animators exhausting efforts with few SHGs

Overreliance on animator

Weak SHGs

Unserved/und er-served SHGs and communitie s

SHG support organization


The absence of sensible methods and capacity for SHG support prompted Catholic Relief Services to approach Freedom from Hunger to help design SHG-appropriate tools and methodologies. Freedom from Hunger was a good candidate given its strong experience in adult education, group-based learning, credit and savings systems, and emphasis in serving the very poor. Together they worked with key Indian field partners in very remote tribal areas to develop simple tools that would help partner staff interact and build the capacities of SHGs in the local area. The goal was to help develop SHGs that were self-reliant, who could help build new SHGs and expand CRS’s reach to un-served, poor communities. Months of development resulted in a series of model Learning Conversations that respond to the relevant needs of SHG members.


II. DESCRIPTION OF METHODOLOGY A. SUMMARY OF DESIGN CONCEPTS During the design phase of the Learning Conversations, there were three levels of criteria used to gauge whether the Learning Conversations were an appropriate SHG-level tool. At the SHGmember level, the conversations had to be engaging, be relevant to members’ daily lives, be motivational so that members would take action, create positive change in the members’ lives, and inspire and empower the members to share lessons with others outside of their group. For the animator, it had to be a fun tool to use and they needed to feel confident in its use. For CRS, the LCs had to be a tool that would build the capacity of their partner organizations, be low-cost, situation-specific, culturally appropriate, and have mass replicability. Engaging the SHG Member Learning Conversations are based on Adult Learning Principles The “science” behind the Learning Conversations is based on adult learning principles. Adults learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process and when the topics are relevant to their situations; in other words, when there is real-world application. Topics of discussion must fill an immediate need, so that “United we can fight motivation for learning and for taking action is highest. They must against anything. If we unite in savings, be able to experiment with new ideas in a safe environment to think we can help any as a group and relate those ideas to their own past. And, importantly, member who is in a they require a time of reflection to absorb how new concepts fit into miserable condition.” an their world. Thus, for Learning Conversations, the animator simply Response ofafter SHG member a becomes a facilitator in the learning and decision-making processes. Learning Conversation He or she helps create and nurture an environment in which SHG on “The Self-Reliant members can brainstorm ideas and reflect on their experiences. The Self-Help Group.” animator can also work with SHG leaders to lead LCs themselves. After testing an LC, CRS and Freedom from Hunger asked for volunteers from the group to facilitate a discussion. After a 20minute coaching session, the SHG member was able to lead the group through an effective LC. Learning Conversations Allow SHG Members to Dream of a Possible Future Creating and facilitating this type of environment for SHG members is not difficult, but it is key to the success of the Learning Conversations—and equally, Learning Conversations are a key to creating this environment. Learning Conversations, as has been explained, propose two stories. One story reflects a current reality (which is normally a negative story) and the other a possible reality (a positive story). The negative story often offers the learning opportunity. Using open questions, the animator or SHG leader has the group reflect on the two stories in small groups. (By inviting members to form small groups of 2 or 3 people, the animator helps create safety and allows shy or soft-spoken people the opportunity to express their thoughts in comfort. Additionally, having members shift groups and mix up is an energizer by itself for quiet groups.) They are asked, “How do these stories relate to you?” “What can you do?” and “How do you plan to use the ideas proposed by the group?” By the end of the discussion, the SHG members are encouraged to commit to some action in response to the issues raised in the stories. And there are many stories and case studies that reflect the power of this methodology: SHG members have found solutions to avoiding moneylenders; they have encouraged mothers to get


their children vaccinated for polio; women have protected each other from domestic abuse; and the stories go on. Learning Conversations Help Make SHG Members Better Consumers of Microfinance and Other Services. Initially, SHGs may save money within their own groups, but when groups become more self-reliant they can be linked to other types of financial services. LCs help address how microfinance and other services (such as health) can serve them and help build their confidence in exploring these other types of services. There are specific LCs on how to avoid the moneylender, how to build savings within a group, how to build a business, and how to link with banks and financial services. These LCs are not simply “how-to” manuals, they are stories about challenges other groups faced and overcame, particularly through solidarity, persistence, and confidence. For those clients who have been marginalized because of their caste, poverty level, or gender, the Learning Conversations provide them with the opportunity to learn how to engage with society at different levels, seek out and demand needed services, and improve their quality of life. Opportunities for Animators Animators (or field agents) are the last leg of development for CRS and its partners. They deliver services and act as a conduit among the SHG members, banks, health clinics, and SHG support organizations. Although they often have roles that are well-defined by their organizations, they are challenged with supplementary “responsibilities” that are often defined by the community and the members of the SHGs. At times they are called upon to counsel women suffering from domestic abuse or facing family turmoil. They are counselors for women who are either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. Therefore, the scope of their work is expanded by the needs of the SHG that go far beyond helping a group save money, make loans or establish bank linkages. In response, Learning Conversations were designed to give animators the following: • An appropriate SHG tool. Learning Conversations take animators out of the perceived “omnipotent” roles so that members are less likely to challenge them with issues that are outside their realm of expertise. Guidance. Learning Conversations put the power of brainstorming solutions for problems and decision-making in the hands of the SHG members. Animators are often relieved to have guidance on how to walk their groups through a problem-solving method so that they are not depended upon as a continual resource for personal and community issues. Leverage. Learning Conversations offer the animator a neutral avenue for addressing sensitive topics such as HIV/AIDS. During a recent HIV/AIDS and Polio Learning Conversation Design Workshop in Lucknow, India, one of the CRS partners was working with SHGs on a purely financial model; however, at the conclusion of the LC training, he felt that he now had a way to introduce sensitive social issues using the stories and LCs.


Case Study: Generating Group Income During an LC training in Kolkata, one CRS partner shared a story about the “Diversify Your Business” Learning Conversation. She introduced the LC to an SHG group and the women came to the decision that they would sell momo, a local food that is often sold during holidays and celebrations. One month later, when she returned to visit the SHG, she couldn’t find any of the members. She asked around the village and, to her pleasant surprise, the women were selling the momo at a busy intersection. In the conversation with them, she discovered that over the past month they had been selling the dish and selling out every time. She had not expected such a positive response to the story, but the women were so excited about their discussions on diversifying their businesses that they were eager to make an increase in their income a reality.—Story told by Kiran, SEVA KENDRA, SILIGURI Opportunities for SHG support organizations Since CRS is the first organization to use Learning Conversations, the discussion on SHG support organizations will be focusing on how CRS has disseminated the Learning Conversations and on the impacts that are visible with CRS and its partner organizations. • LCs are a capacity-building tool. CRS has seen LCs as a capacity-building tool for its partner organizations. LCs have allowed CRS to offer its partners a tool that would strengthen their SHGs and free up their animators’ time to pursue the development of new SHGs. These support organizations can now expand their outreach and meet ever-increasing community needs. LCs help SHG support organizations communicate with the really poor in communities to which they normally might not have access. As SHG members’ levels of self-confidence and empowerment grow through their abilities to find solutions to their own problems, they are encouraged to reach out to other poor women in their communities and build new SHGs. One particular Learning Conversation called “A Village That Includes Everyone” addresses the importance of inviting everyone to become a part of an SHG, no matter the poverty level. The story of the Surya SHG tells a tale about some women who wanted to join an SHG but couldn’t save the minimum amount and stopped going to the meetings. The story of Aditya SHG portrays a completely different story. It tells a tale about how Muni and Sarita, the poorest women in Haldipur, wanted to join an SHG but couldn’t save the minimum; the Aditya SHG helped the two women start an SHG that would save at a lower level and they taught them how elect officers, decide their savings rate, and hold regular meetings. LCs help CRS share SHG-relevant information. Learning Conversations are vehicles for sharing information with SHGs in a way that speaks to them. They go beyond passive participation with methods such as health talks, and engage SHG members in important, relevant discussions about issues that affect their lives. LCs are the same, yet different from other methods. Initially, there was some resistance to Learning Conversations because many CRS and partner staff voiced that LCs were in a sense something they did already—using storytelling as a technique to share information with the


SHG members. Why add a similar tool that requires new introductions and trainings? However, when partners were asked how Learning Conversations were different from what they already do with SHGs, they agreed that LCs provide an empowering process that encourages SHG members to seek a solution to a problem together, come to a decision, and then act on that decision. In addition, animators and SHG leaders are encouraged to follow up on the commitments made by the group so that there is a level of accountability and communication of group and individual successes. • LCs provide a problem-solving process for CRS, too! Interestingly, CRS and its partners see Learning Conversations not only as a tool for SHGs, but recognize the problem-solving process as something valuable to their own organizations. Partners and animators have used them for participatory monitoring of community developments. LCs help groups envision what something could look like in the future and what the necessary steps are to get there. They have also used LCs in conjunction with Focus Group Discussions and needs assessments. The LC methodology helps the animators probe more deeply into issues, and as stories and discussions progress, they are able to identify topics for new Learning Conversations and CRS initiatives. Some partners have used them with youth in some of their schools and consider this an important teaching innovation.

Case Study: Learning Conversations as a tool to build new SHGs. CRS India has a partner organization in West Bengal called The Social Welfare Institute— Raiganj. Their operations are located in West Bengal near the border with Bangladesh. The team currently works with 250 SHGs. They have used Learning Conversations as a way to build SHGs in communities where no SHG exists. After completing market research in communities, they have discovered that the communities were only helping each other with the birth of a child, funerals, weddings and holidays. At no other time would the community members come together. Once during a village meeting with several community members, they used a street play incorporating a Learning Conversation to tell the story of villages that had groups working together on community issues. Using the Learning Conversation methodology, they asked questions at the conclusion of the play about how their communities could work together more and asked them to commit to return in a week to talk about creating and joining SHGs. The Learning Conversation methodology has successfully allowed them to introduce the benefits of SHGs and build them. B. PROCESS/STEPS IN IMPLEMENTATION When the Learning Conversations were conceived, CRS wanted a tool that would support its partners in capacity building, be economical, and be applicable to and easily shared among its various partners. Initial groundwork for the Learning Conversations started in October 2002 when Freedom from Hunger and CRS embarked on a joint market research project with SHGs in the tribal villages in the state of Jharkhand. Through the data and perspectives discovered during the research, Freedom from Hunger, with help from CRS, drafted the first set of Learning Conversations and tested them to determine which of the stories resonated most with the SHG members. Additionally, they assessed whether the Learning Conversation method provided the SHG members with a productive platform for discussing local issues, identifying solutions and coming to a collective commitment to pursue one of the solutions. Once the testing of the LCs


was completed, the most popular LCs were compiled into a field guide known as the “Greatest Hits.” The “Greatest Hits” comprises 20 LCs on topics such as how to avoid the moneylender, keeping girls in school, how to build a strong SHG, how to diversify your revenue-making sources, how to protect your village, how to dream for a better life, etc. Along with the “Greatest Hits” guide, a Field Guide for Facilitators was produced as a companion resource for training animators to implement the LCs in the SHG meetings. Following the testing and production of the Greatest Hits and field guide, trainings for CRS staff and partner staff in the use of the Learning Conversations began in February 2003. All CRS India state offices have since been exposed to the methodology and several formal staff and partner staff trainings have taken place in CRS’s West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan state offices. Several CRS offices have also taken the lead and initiative in mainstreaming the Learning Conversations in their overall SHG strategies and beyond.

C. METHOD OF MEASURING RESULTS The vision statement created by some of the CRS offices and partner organizations—Learning Conversations are self-managed by SHG leaders. They use participatory problem-solving and strengthening methods that lead to positive impacts on individuals, SHG members, the community, and beyond—signals a strategy for monitoring the progress of the Learning Conversations. Attribution may be a challenge, as many tools, methods and learning opportunities are used with SHGs. But, it can also be argued that there are several levels that can be assessed to measure impact or, at the very least, progress.
No specific methodologies to measure progress or impacts have been pursued, yet there are small tools that many of the partners already use. There are small checklists that partner organizations can use to assess the performance of their staff facilitators. One partner organization has expanded this checklist along with its animators so that animators can monitor their own performance and that of their co-animators. Their animators have acknowledged that this process has been very helpful and empowering because together they have been able to improve their delivery of the LCs. The skills learned for facilitating LCs have helped them in other areas of their work. Several of the partner organizations share case studies with CRS that document small successes. Training events have also been used to share information among the partners. As has been highlighted earlier, Technical Learning Conversations are going to require a more vigorous system of monitoring and evaluation of progress and impacts. The opportunity to discuss developing a system to do this will occur during the design phase of the HIV/AIDS and Malaria TLCs in 2005. It is anticipated that mini-surveys using lot quality assurance sampling will be implemented on a routine basis to measure change in knowledge and behavior. Lot Quality Assurance Sampling (hereafter: LQAS) was a sampling approach originally designed by industry 75 years ago. It is now widely used by the health sector as a valuable management tool. It does not measure impact in the sense of causality, but provides managers with the data they need to determine whether their programs or activities are reaching a certain,


expected threshold. Through a random sampling of 19 individuals, a manager can yield conclusions with sensitivity and specificity greater than 95%.5 LQAS could be a cost-effective way to collect data on the progress of Learning Conversations because 1) it relies on small samples to provide immediately useful information; 2) data analysis and interpretation are simple (a computer is not required); and 3) action can be focused on problematic areas. Observation checklists and LQAS are two tools that can be used to assess performance and the changes in knowledge and behavior. Periodic formal assessments could also be utilized when specialized data is needed. Yet, any tool proposed will have to ensure that it provides useful data and helps guide management decisions. III. RESULTS A. SCALE The Self-Help Group movement in India can be considered the largest microfinance program in the world and much of the movement’s success can be attributed to an enabling environment in which national banks and governmental programs have fostered their growth and capacities. Reaching SHGs through NABARD In February of 1992, the Indian National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development launched a landmark pilot program called the Self-help Group Bank Linkage program in which it recognized the poor as potential NABARD clients. Under this program, NABARD made efforts to help form SHGs that would come together, pool their financial resources, and make interestbearing loans within their groups. Once the group gained financial discipline, NABARD would make bank credit available to the group, thereby enhancing the lending resources for the group. Furthermore, NABARD started making credit available through NGOs, other bankers and government agencies that were also working with SHGs. In 1992, NABARD’s goal was to reach 500 SHGs across India and 1 million SHGs by 2007; however, the SHG momentum has helped NABARD surpass this goal as of 2004. In 2003 and 2004, NABARD loaned approximately Rs 39.04 billion (US$ 867 million) to 1,079,091 SHGs.6 This indicates that between 15 and 20 million poor households have gained access to the formal banking system through NABARD’s Bank Linkage program.7 And this number only reflects the SHGs that have been linked to a bank. There are even more SHGs who are currently only saving and making loans within their groups and who are meeting for other purposes than simply access to credit. Support organizations, such as CRS, often spend 6–12 months forming and building the basic capacities of SHGs before facilitating their linkage to semi-formal or formal financial service organizations. CRS and its extensive SHG reach

A sample size of 19 is commonly used since only a much larger sample size would provide additional useful information. 6 Source: 7 Calculation based on each SHG having between 15 and 20 members.


Although CRS is only one organization working closely with the development of SHGs, its reach covers 23 of the 28 states in India and it works through 63 Coordinating Partners and 2,500+ Operating Partners.8 In 2003, CRS was working with a total of 14,500 SHGs comprised of 238,000 women. By November 2004, CRS was serving 30,699 SHGs comprised of 425,000 women. In one year, their numbers have more than doubled and their growth continues as the “ripple effect”—SHGs starting new SHGs—continues. In 2004, almost 3,000 SHGs had been started by other SHGs. CARE’s growth potential into SHG programming CARE India is an additional partner of Freedom from Hunger with far-reaching impact. Currently, CARE India’s Credit and Savings for Household Enterprise Project (hereafter: CASHE), its microfinance program, is being implemented in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal, and through 25 grassroots partners is reaching approximately 248,000 women, of which nearly 117,0009 are linked to NABARD, making it one of the largest microfinance organizations outside of the government in India. CARE India is also expanding its CASHE program into Madhya Pradesh. During its market research for the state in 2004, it was estimated that there were approximately 200,000 SHGs, making Madhya Pradesh the second-largest state after Andhra Pradesh in terms of numbers of groups formed. CRS, NABARD, and CARE all have extensive networks and reach in India. Their abilities and capacities to reach large numbers of women and achieve social and financial benefits are immense; however, it has been recognized by all that you can’t simply count success through the numbers of SHGs organized, or through the number of women who join. There must be a focus on the quality of these groups. There must be long-term benefits for the members and they must have access to information, both financial and social, that help them make decisions about their livelihoods. B. IMPACT Although much of the evidence on the impact of Learning Conversations has been anecdotal, the impact thus far appears to be real. SHG members are gaining knowledge and this is contributing to some dramatic changes in many villages: from putting moneylenders out of business to building sustainable businesses that support the livelihood of a family. It has proven to be a powerful strategy, as the uptake is quick. It does not require months to see changes. The LCs lead to actions that are simple and SHG members can make immediate changes, or at the very least begin working toward a goal. Learning Conversations have given women the opportunity to discuss with other women issues that affect their lives—in some cases, for the very first time. The following are descriptions of the various levels of opportunity and impact of the Learning Conversations:  CRS partner staff have made repeated requests to have the two LC booklets of the “Greatest Hits” and the “Field Guide” translated in the local languages of Bengali /Nepali (for Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim) and Hindi to achieve maximum impact at the grassroots

Based on 2003 statistics. CRS’s Coordinating Partners work regionally and help coordinate the activities of the Operating Partners. 9 Figures based on CARE’s CASHE Midterm Evaluation.


level. Once the animators and the SHG leaders are through with the Greatest Hits, they are successfully moving out of the booklet stories and creating their own LC stories in local languages on alcoholism, dowry, etc. based on community need. In the state of Sikkim, under the joint collaboration of CRS/NABARD and the Postal Department, the postal staff and the postmen are additionally being given exposure to the LC methodology to improve upon their communication/articulation skills at the rural community level and function as effective “rural change agents.” It has also been found that the SHG members have been leading the Learning Conversations and spreading the stories and discussion to other SHGs and people in their communities. Thus, benefits of this engaging dialogue are not limited to women SHG members, but accrue to the wider community. Through this “ripple effect,” the Learning Conversations are proving a catalyzing dynamic for community development. CRS state offices and partner organizations have identified that the content and problemsolving process proposed in the Learning Conversations have led to positive changes among SHG members. For LCs tackling polio vaccinations as an issue, more mothers are taking their children to polio booths and seeking out other vaccinations. Women have succeeded in having their husbands stop or reduce their drinking; women are learning how to prepare for disasters; villagers are enrolling their children in schools and ensuring the teachers at their children’s schools are showing up. Additionally, social capital is created in the groups as they face issues together and create bonds of trust. They are learning from each other’s experiences. Women who use the methodology claim an increase in their confidence levels because they can discuss issues and make appropriate decisions about their lives.

Case Study: Tackling Alcoholism In Sahapur village in West Bengal, an animator introduced a story about alcoholism to 11 SHGs who had gathered together for the Learning Conversation. By the time the stories were over and the discussions began, several of the women were crying because they had had experiences in which their husbands came home after consuming too much alcohol and beat them. Additionally, their sons had also taken up the habit of drinking too much alcohol. For many, this was the first time they had openly shared or discussed such personal issues. They said, “We want to do something about this.” The animator encouraged them to come up with possible solutions to this crisis. Eventually the women forced the shops to shut down and are working with local administrators to ensure that the shops are not reopened. Additionally, some of their husbands patrol the village to ensure that no one is selling alcohol.—Sudeshna Mukherjee, Program Coordinator, Catholic Relief Services, Kolkata Through Learning Conversations, many women have learned how to strengthen their SHG and diversify their businesses. Many are soon going to be learning how to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS, a disease that affects more than 4 million people in India. Their stories, about how access to information and choice has changed their lives, have yet to be told. IV. RESOURCES REQUIRED/COST TO THE INSTITUTION


Learning Conversations offer a number of benefits to the organizations that use them. It is a multipurpose tool that is easily disseminated at a low cost. The process used to facilitate activities and discussions with SHGs are very relevant to other settings. They can be used with any group that comes together on a regular basis for a specific purpose. They can be used even at the organization level as a capacity-building tool. For example, the CRS-Kolkata office participated in a morale-building workshop with the Learning Conversations being the underlying theme and the underlying process. Because of the LC methodology’s simplicity, flexibility and replicability, the potential for their dissemination and utilization is an exciting possibility. In terms of costs, the following outlines the approximate line-items and costs for CRS’ programs in Uttar Pradesh: Training program at State level (includes: travel, food, lodging, stationery, hall charges, etc. for 30 participants) Training program at Partner level (includes: all mentioned above for 30 people) Training program at field level (includes: travel, food, stationery for 30 participants (non-residential)) Printing costs (includes: 1000 LC booklets) Approximate total for Uttar Pradesh $1820 $685 $350 $470 $3325

Case Study: Avoiding the Moneylender In many villages, taking loans from the moneylender is a private affair and rarely discussed among villagers until “The Moneylender” Learning Conversation was introduced to the Surya SHG in Chandwa. As the dialogue began after the introductory stories, 16 SHG members lamented at their experiences with the moneylender: one woman expressed how three years ago she took a loan for Rs 5,000 and has since then paid Rs 9,000 on interest alone; another woman grieved over the loss of her land to a moneylender as a form of repayment. The SHG was more than a year old and had savings of 13,000 rupees. No woman had ever taken a loan to repay a moneylender, but the women all agreed that from that point onward, none of their members should ever have to surrender much-needed capital or personal belongings to pay off a loan from the moneylender. If a member was contemplating taking a loan from the moneylender, “she should stop right there and come directly to the SHG to share her dilemma.” The SHG members made a commitment to help each other in times of financial need and to start saving more as a group for emergencies, education for their children, etc. There is much anecdotal evidence from CRS partners that financial strategies generated within the numerous SHGs are putting the moneylenders out of work. In another SHG in Sahapur, the members shared how the moneylenders were particularly dangerous. Some members had been physically or verbally harassed by the moneylender, who also barged into their homes demanding repayment. They hoped eventually that the moneylender would have to come to them for loans. In this case, what


goes around may indeed eventually come around.—Case studies provided by Sarah Smith, Consultant, Catholic Relief Services, Ranchi V. CHALLENGES AND PITFALLS/LESSONS LEARNED Although Learning Conversations have seen many exciting developments, they have also faced several challenges. During one workshop, a participant argued that the Learning Conversation is both a science and an art. His observation will be used to demonstrate the challenges that some CRS partners have faced implementing LCs. The “science” behind the design of the Learning Conversations can be easily understood because of the repetition in the use of the same open questions for each story, the use of two different stories, small-group work, etc. During our assessment of the LCs in October, many conversations with CRS staff and partners centered around a perceived “prescription” in the Learning Conversations. Within the two stories that are provided, one story very clearly presents a picture that has more positive impacts than another. In one story, an SHG member, Neela,10 engages in a behavior that leads to challenges while the other story tells of Gita, an SHG member who overcomes a challenge and succeeds. Prescriptive? In a way, yes; however, it is not a prescription in the sense that the group is expected to say, “Let us do exactly what Gita has done.” The strength of providing two stories with two distinct outcomes is that it provides a group with options. And those options are what engage SHG members in a discussion about “what could be.” Furthermore, it can be said that facilitating a Learning Conversation in a way that engages a selfhelp group is an art. An animator must know how to adapt stories and facilitate discussions so that they will touch people and inspire them to act. SHG members are often self-conscious about their participation and are not initially willing to get involved. Animators must be prepared to create an environment that is inviting and safe for participation. They require time to practice storytelling. They need tips on how to make up their own stories. The stories need to be localized to be relevant to SHG members. Animators need the skills to develop the capacities of the SHG leader so that he/she is able to own the LC process and absorb the role that the animator initially holds. CRS determined that animators need some training so that they are able to deliver LCs more effectively. Initially, while LCs were being designed, the goal was to create a methodology that didn’t require any formal training. It was expected that LCs would simply be put in the hands of literate animators. However, many of the animators were not necessarily hired to be “LC animators.” Thus, their qualifications don’t always encompass the skills necessary to be effective storytellers and facilitators of the LC methodology. Because the LCs are based on adult learning principles, which are at times new to the animators themselves, they have to learn the art of asking open questions, of creating a safe environment to pursue sensitive topics, and of being able to adapt generic stories to a local context. As a part of the skills-building of the animator, it

Neela is the character in the “Greatest Hits” Learning Conversation Manual for villagers who generally faces conflict and challenge due to the behaviors of her SHG. Gita is the character that sees more positive impacts in her life.


is important to understand that s/he should not “rush” through the LC story to arrive at the “commitment” part. It depends both on the animator’s articulation skills as well as the age/ composition/maturity of the groups. For some SHGs it may take just one group meeting to arrive at the commitment, whereas for some newly formed tribal SHGs it may take 3–4 group meetings to arrive at an individual or group commitment. Hence, for LCs, patience is required so that ultimately the group owns it and decides the course of action. Consequently, CRS has determined that a minimal level of training is necessary, especially for those animators who want to be able to create new stories or tackle health issues such as HIV/AIDS that require a specific knowledge set. Additional requirements and skills for animators include animator acceptance in the village and the ability to speak and converse in the local language. Although LCs remain a simple tool, animator preparation is critical for effective use and for setting the stage for larger initiatives such HIV/AIDS, polio and malaria Learning Conversations. Additionally, CRS partners agreed that storytelling is a way of life and thus a comfortable way to share messages; however, as groups develop and progress, the repeated use of the Learning Conversation stories, as they are designed now, may become monotonous. CRS is currently in the process of integrating LCs into other methodologies, such as street theatre, dancing, singing, and theatre as they are also parts of the culture and a good way to transmit messages. Finally, as CRS and its partners begin developing what are considered Technical Learning Conversations (hereafter: TLCs)—LCs that provide specific recommended practices for health, business, and other topics—there is and will continue to be a greater need for evaluating the “body of knowledge” people are working from to create a TLC. For example, TLCs on HIV/AIDS will require consensus on the type of information CRS and its partners want to share and will require compliance with medical information from the Ministry of Health. In this case, misinformation could at the extreme cause fatalities or, at the simplest level, confusion and fear. So, it must be determined who can create TLCs and who can deliver them. Will they require special skills or qualifications to deliver TLCs? Thus, as Freedom from Hunger and CRS work together to develop HIV/AIDS, Polio, and Malaria TLCs, all parties will need to be equipped with the financial and human resources that will be necessary to implement and diligently monitor and evaluate the TLCs. In any case, CRS and Freedom from Hunger both believe that the benefits will greatly outweigh the costs when SHG members are empowered with the information that can improve, and in the case of the TLCs, save their lives and the lives of their family members. CONTACT INFORMATION/SOURCES OF INFORMATION Case study was written by Bobbi Gray and Ellen Vor der Bruegge of Freedom from Hunger and Clodagh McCumisky of CRS-India. For additional information, contact: Ellen Vor der Bruegge Vice President, Program Initiatives Freedom from Hunger 1644 DaVinci Court Davis, CA 95616

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