Accelerating evidence-based south-south collaboration to reach the extreme poor

By: Emily Coppel and Isabel Whisson, BRAC

Careful adaptation of proven programs in new contexts is key to achieving SDG 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere

In January of 2017, five officials from the Government of Kenya, The Boma Project, and CARE International traveled to Bangladesh. Their aim? To understand how BRAC, one of the world’s largest NGOs, headquartered in Dhaka, ‘graduated’ 1.7 million of its very poorest households out of destitution into those with sustainable livelihoods. This trip was part of a larger initiative, funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, whereby BRAC is providing technical assistance to Kenya’s government and its two partners on how to develop and roll out more effective, targeted social protection services for its most severely marginalized citizens.

BRAC’s Graduation approach has been implemented widely in the years since Science published seminal research with evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. Evaluating the approach in eight countries, researchers found that participants increased their savings, consumption, and assets one year after the program ended. The approach itself is complex, neither a laundry list of services, nor a formulaic implementation plan, that can be stamped across various regions. As the Kenyan delegation soon came to understand, the adaptation – in both the delivery of services and the services themselves – is much more nuanced.  

What is Graduation? 

Graduation programs have several different components. First, a rigorous targeting and market analysis exercise to identify a particular vulnerable population. This process also identifies participants who exhibit the potential to undertake and expand an income-generating activity or small business. Another component is livelihood development, which can be in the form of cash or a loan for a stipulated purpose, livestock or tools of trade to start a business, linkage to employment, or any productive income-generating activity. This is accompanied by technical training to assist the participant in growing her business. Wraparound services are incorporated, and could include a combination of healthcare, food stipends, financial literacy training, financial services, and savings to provide integrated support to the participant. Mentorship or coaching throughout the program is key to supporting the participant with social assistance, life skills training and in all aspects of the program for its duration. Finally, Graduation criteria must be in place, which consist of specific indicators that illustrate the participant’s economic, social, and personal progression, for example, sending their children to school. 

Graduation Approach
Copyright BRAC/Amplifier Strategies

BRAC launched its Ultra Poor Graduation Initiative to provide technical assistance and advisory services to governments, NGOs, and multilaterals interested in designing effective Graduation programs for extremely poor and marginalized populations. This initiative fosters South-South collaboration, whereby a strong evidence-backed program in Bangladesh can serve as an approach for other regions. 

BRAC’s Initiative assists partners to develop programs that are carefully targeted and time-bound, with sequenced interventions that promote livelihoods, financial inclusion, food security, basic health, social capital, and, most importantly, self-empowerment. Together, they contribute to uplifting households from extreme poverty. Critical to the success of Graduation programming is the fine-tuned contextualization of the approach in each environment.  

Adaptations in Kenya, Lesotho, and the Philippines are underway and these partnerships are already offering insight on how to improve services for the extreme poor living in drastically different contexts. 

Livelihoods and market access: When giving cash works better 

Historically, BRAC has been a strong proponent of providing in-kind assets, like goats, cows, or goods to sell, to help women start their businesses, rather than cash. But in Kenya, early indications show a different approach could be as effective. In Bangladesh, the women served through BRAC’s Graduation programming, have limited interaction with markets. For example, if given a cash transfer to buy and re-sell a cow, a program participant would not know the market price of a healthy cow, and risks being overcharged. In Kenya, women have better understanding of markets and could navigate these challenges with less support. As a result, they may be able to effectively take on a cash transfer to launch their enterprise. For implementers, this cuts down on staff time to purchase assets on behalf of participants.  

Group vs. Individual livelihoods 

Another divergence from BRAC’s traditional design is operating group livelihoods packages in one of the Kenya pilot sites, by The Boma Project who are experienced with this approach. In the past, Bangladesh pilots, group businesses have not been successful, with some members feeling that others freeload off their hard work. But in Kenya, BOMA’s participants combine their efforts to create an enterprise, which also enables them to support one another with family and domestic responsibilities. When one member is working, another is available to assist with childcare for the group. An evaluation comparing individual with group livelihoods will generate more insight into when one approach may be more effective than the other. 

‘It may work here, but it can’t work there’ 

While skillful adaptation often means making tweaks to a model, it also requires knowing what to keep. When BRAC’s NGO partners from Kenya observed BRAC’s participatory process for identifying the most vulnerable in a community, they expected it would not work in Kenya. Because of the remoteness of the pilot sites they thought community members would not show up to participate in the exercise.  After testing it in Kenya earlier this year in January, BRAC found that community members were much more receptive and involved than the government officials had predicted. This method proved more effective and operationally efficient than those they previously used to identify the poorest members of a community.   

In Rangpur, Bangladesh, Haimanti, Anwara, and Aheja attend a final workshop for BRAC’s Targeting the Ultra Poor graduation program in which the instructor taught savings management. They will graduate from the program this December.

Achieving the SDGs will require sharing successful anti-poverty solutions, drawing on lessons learned across contexts and fostering South-South collaboration. To do this effectively, implementers and program designers will need to understand why each program component exists, what purpose it serves, and how the root causes of poverty vary across contexts. In the next several years, BRAC’s Ultra Poor Graduation Initiative team will continue to work with others to understand the elements of a successful approach, design adaptations, and, through careful iteration, ensure these Graduation programs take root and successfully grow into effective anti-poverty solutions.