Self-help is often perceived as a valuable, if not essential, element to development programmes. At the same time, as a concept it has generally escaped scrutiny. Two types of claims are made about the benefits of self-help programmes. First, it is suggested that selfhelp empowers its participants more so than other externally directed or implemented programmes. The second less vocal claim is the compatibility of self-help with cost-reduction strategies: both in terms of material costs and costs to the prevailing social and economic structure. This article explores these two claims through a case study of a self-help group (SHG) programme in Tamil Nadu, India. It argues that although empowering outcomes are stated as the rationale for self-help, these are often neglected in favour of achieving cost-reduction ones. This is an outcome of the concept of self-help being absorbed into the practices and discourses of the dominant development paradigm. Self-help has thus been divorced from its role in enabling self-direction, and has become the rationale for pressuring the marginalised to take responsibility for improving their own condition within a non-negotiable economic and social structure.