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The concept of self-reliant groups is not new in the developing world – it is a model which is widely and effectively used throughout the Indian Sub-continent, Africa, South America etc as a means of tackling poverty amongst their poorest communities, referred to in these places as self-help groups. I have described some of these in previous blogs after I visited them on my recent trip to India. In the developed world and especially in the UK it is not so well known at all. In the UK there is only one other organisation operating the model – see – Wevolution are successful pioneers of the model in Scotland and Purple Shoots is following their lead, in partnership with them, adapting the model for our context.

What is a self-reliant group? It is a small group of people, usually around 8-10 but the number isn’t rigidly fixed, from a similar economic background and usually with a shared geography who meet together regularly and work together towards a shared goal of improving their situation. The groups give their members a chance to realize their potential, to find their skills and strengths, perhaps to learn new ones, and to develop ideas on how to put these to practical use.

Key features are:
– Self-reliance, drawing on the group’s own strengths and skills, networks and connections (and helping members realize they have these!)
– Solidarity – mutual support provided by the group in which trust and friendships grow, and also provided by the support organisations (Wevolution and Purple Shoots and the linkages that these organisations can provide)
– Micro-enterprise – getting to the point of starting a small business, either collectively as a group or individually with the support of the other group members. Wevolution and Purple Shoots can provide help at this point, both via advice and via small loans to get something started.

How do they work? The successful groups in Scotland have usually started with two people who wanted to start one. These two had some initial help and training from Wevolution and then gathered a group of others around them. The group members then agree when to meet (usually weekly) and where. There is a handbook which groups can follow or dip into which can help guide their weekly meetings so that they agree a set of principles under which they operate and move towards identifying needs, ideas and ways forward. The groups set up a savings fund and contribute regular amounts (usually £1 per member per week). This provides additional commitment but also a fund which slowly builds out of which equipment or materials can be bought for income generating ideas, or small personal loans can be agreed to members of the group for emergencies.

This is a undoubtedly a slow process towards income generation but its impact on the group members in Scotland has been stunning in terms of restored confidence, skill development and community support networks as well as developing small businesses. The most ambitious group so far have moved from offering a weekly lunch club, to doing alterations and repairs on clothing, upholstery etc to opening a launderette – and all of the group members would say that they never saw themselves as capable of achieving this when the group started. There are other groups working on businesses connected to crafts, catering, fashion and market trading.

Doing it in Wales. Many of the individuals in whom Purple Shoots has invested so far have overcome very difficult circumstances to get to the point where they have the confidence to start a business and take out a small loan to do it – Purple Shoots has simply removed the last obstacle (access to finance) to enable them to start – they have already overcome a whole raft of other obstacles on their own, and the resilience and resourcefulness that some of them have demonstrated is impressive. The self-reliant group model fits for people who haven’t got to that point and perhaps need some help to get there in order to realize their potential and use the skills that they have. The scattered communities in rural Wales and the solidarity which still exists amongst the old mining communities of South Wales are strong bases out of which these groups could grow. I am close to getting one or two started – in the Rhondda Valley and in Barry. As the number of groups grows, Purple Shoots will be able to provide other forms of support for them – for example marketing which is much more feasible for a range of products and services offered by a number of small businesses than it is for each small business to do on their own. The potential is great. The model creates economic development and growth from the bottom up – a principle which is far more likely to be successful in Wales where the economy is made up of a large number of very small businesses.

“If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat. We linked arms and got out of the boat together” quote from one of the members of a Scottish self-reliant group.


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