As COVID lockdowns and related unemployment remain steady, institutions around the world continue to revise and increase their predictions around extreme poverty figures. With so much on the line for so many, it will take cooperation and scalable solutions by governments and development organization alike to ensure no one is left behind.
By Isabel Whisson | Special Assistant for Strategy, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative
A worsening situation on the ground
The need to drive systemic change and combat extreme poverty has never been more urgent. The World Bank estimates that more than 70 million people will be forced into extreme poverty by the end of 2020 due to COVID, unraveling decades of progress toward poverty alleviation (World Bank, 2020). Yet experts refer to these recent estimates as conservative because they are premised on the assumption that only five percent of the global economy will contract. The reality could be far worse (Sumner et al, 2020).
While the reach of COVID-19 may be global, the impact it is having on different populations varies. The 700 million people living in extreme poverty at the start of 2020, along with those who join them, are the most affected and most at-risk population. With limited access to health care, food, clean water, steady income, and public services, and often an inability to practice social distancing, the poorest are trapped and at risk of being left behind.
We must act swiftly and design social protection programmes that meet the increasing and evolving needs of the extreme poor — programmes that are comprehensive, adaptive, and immediate but for long-term needs — to build resilience and support sustainable recovery.
A well-positioned, scalable solution
BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative is the first scalable solution identified by the global development community that is proven to break the poverty trap. It is a multifaceted, researched set of interventions based on a deep understanding of the challenges faced by those living at a severe level of extreme poverty (BRAC, 2020). It could also have a key role in building economic resilience and supporting recovery for the world’s poorest communities so they can withstand future shocks.
Around the world, we are seeing cash transfers being expanded and rapidly rolled out — a vital implement to ensure hundreds of millions of households can survive the COVID crisis. The longer-term question is how households, whether newly in extreme poverty or not, will be equipped to enter (back) into sustainable livelihoods.
The Graduation approach has several recovery and resilience-building mechanisms built-in and is positioned to be a key methodology for enabling communities to recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. It combines short-term survival mechanisms to ensure basic needs are met with a range of social and financial interventions that build economic outcomes proven to last in the long-term. This is supported by anecdotal evidence from Graduation programmes in Haiti and South Sudan whose participants were better positioned than neighbors to withstand economic shocks resulting from the hurricane and violence (Coppel, 2020).
Moreover, when it comes to integrating Graduation into existing social protection systems, many of the key components are often already in place. Graduation commonly leverages existing cash transfers, while pulling from other existing government measures to offer livelihoods inputs, training, or extension services, financial inclusion, and linkages to health and social services.
The future of social protection
Governments that coordinate and integrate existing measures, based on a Graduation framework, while expanding its reach to the poorest communities can better position themselves to stem the economic crisis for its most vulnerable populations.
BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative (UPGI) received USD 60 million to apply toward its goal of scaling Graduation through integration in existing government social protection systems in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Through this work, BRAC UPGI aims to help 21 million more people lift themselves from extreme poverty by 2026.
BRAC UPGI recognises that the level of effort, programming, resources, and tenacity required to achieve this goal and eradicate extreme poverty vastly exceeds the capabilities of a single organisation or the USD 60 million investment.
At a global level, BRAC UPGI will work with strategic donors, whose funding and expertise influence the uptake of social protection programmes, to rally around evidence-backed economic inclusion programmes that focus on the extreme poor. The team will also work with a coalition of actors to engage in advocacy efforts to elevate and maintain attention on the need to end extreme poverty.
At a country-level, BRAC UPGI will work with a selection of governments and implementing partners to reach 21 million more people through government-led Graduation programmes by 2026. This will entail the engagement of government policymakers, working closely with government agencies to enhance design and execution of extreme-poor focused programmes, building capacities among implementing partners, delivering and supporting graduation pilots where they can provide value-add in influencing government action and working with local advocacy partners to build and sustain local demand for government investment in graduation programmes.
These efforts will be complemented by a robust learning agenda that will continue to build the global bank of evidence for how Graduation can be adapted to key poverty contexts and effectively and efficiently scaled. BRAC UPGI plans to work with a vibrant community of actors dedicated to fighting extreme poverty through Graduation and similar approaches.
The problem of extreme poverty is a blight on the social systems and structures that we have designed. COVID-19 has exposed and worsened pre-existing issues and forced us to re-think the systems we have in place. To truly eliminate poverty in all its forms, BRAC UPGI urges governments, multilateral institutions, donors, NGOs, and policymakers to work together more effectively and commit significantly more resources.
List of references
BRAC (2020) Insights and Research. Access here.
Coppel, Emily (2020) Opinion: How to find a resilient solution to extreme poverty. Devex. October 2016. Access here
Sumner, A., Hoy, C., and Ortiz-Juarez, E. (2020). Estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on global poverty. United Nations University. Access here
World Bank (2020) Projected poverty impacts of COVID-19. Access here