By Lauren Whitehead | Director of Technical Assistance & Jake Konig | Content Development Associate, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative
COVID-19 has forced millions more people, largely informal workers who represent 50–80% of employment in many urban centers, into poverty. According to the World Bank’s Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report 2020, those who have seen their incomes fall below $1.90 per day — an income threshold global actors use to identify people experiencing extreme poverty — are more likely to be “urban, better educated, and less likely to work in agriculture than those living in extreme poverty before COVID-19.”
Despite perceived benefits such as dynamic markets, transportation networks, and diversity of employment options, urban contexts present unique challenges to poverty that require contextualized, adaptable interventions. This can include hurdles such as fragmented access to basic services, high degrees of mobility, poor sanitary conditions, and exorbitant rental costs or precarious living arrangements in illegal settlements and resource-deprived slums.
Though urban poverty and rural poverty may differ, the core injustice is the same: a life without the resources and tools needed to meet one’s basic needs. This injustice prompted BRAC to bring the Graduation approach, which it had developed and implemented in rural Bangladesh with incredible success, to the urban slums of Dhaka in 2010. It was this program in 2016 that Nurjahan enrolled in which changed her life and her family’s as well.
As a part of the program, Nurjahan received seed capital, three days worth of training on financial management and business techniques, and one-on-one regular coaching from an assigned mentor. With this “big push,” Nurjahan’s beauty and fabric enterprise began to flourish, empowering her to make steps to better her family’s life.
Her enrollment in the program also allowed her to begin breaking the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty — Nurjahan (who only received a basic education) is proud to watch her daughter complete her undergraduate studies and her three younger sons excel in their education.
Distinguishing the challenges of urban poverty from rural poverty
A cornerstone of the Graduation approach is prioritizing adaptation in the face of diverse contexts. Urban poverty may shift dramatically even from one section of a city to another just blocks away. That said, there are common characteristics of urban poverty that the Graduation approach aims to address applying its four key elements of meeting basic needs, income generation, financial support and savings, and social empowerment.
One major characteristic that differentiates the lived experience of urban poverty from rural poverty is a high level of transience and ruptured social ties. Unstable housing conditions caused by living in tenements, squatter dwellings, or excessive rents contribute to frequent migration.
Graduation programs strengthen social capital through community ties and resources and government accountability through civic engagement platforms. Graduation coaches — a critical component of the Graduation approach — improve social ties and community engagement through forming linkages that foster connections with local power structures, government agencies, and local municipal authorities. In BRAC UPGI’s partnership with the Government of Rwanda, volunteer caseworkers seen as peer role models in the community acted as coaches to strengthen social ties and access to government officials.
Another common concern is a lack of access to basic services, particularly health and sanitation.
Adapting Graduation programs for urban contexts during COVID-19
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, BRAC has been continuing to implement contextualized Graduation programming globally. BRAC UPGI is working with the State Government of Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board to increase access to sanitation services and improve health and hygiene for households resettled from urban slums near encroaching bodies of water and other disaster-prone environments.
People living in urban poverty also struggle with unique financial burdens. For example, many urban households encounter high rates of debt due to relatively high costs of living. While access to formal or informal savings mechanisms may exist, they are often not utilized or have barriers to entry in enrollment requirements, including lack of identification, collateral, minimum deposits, and fixed address.
In partnership with the Government of the Philippines, Graduation program participants learned how to spot and avoid aggressive lending schemes and predators through financial literacy and budget management training and also received access to micro savings accounts to reduce future need. This resulted in reduced indebtedness for program participants.
Urban populations are heavily reliant upon daily wage labor within city limits for unskilled or low skilled labor. This makes predictable incomes and savings extremely difficult, yet more dangerous in an urban context with high living costs. Urban Graduation programs aim to link households to entrepreneurship, formal employment, and vocational training to counter high rates of informality.
Reaching the “new poor” in Bangladesh through BRAC’s post-COVID Urban Graduation redesign
In Dhaka during COVID-19, the situation is dire. Lockdowns and food insecurity have pushed once thriving households into “new poor” status and survival mode. In 2020, in collaboration across UPG and Urban programs, BRAC began strategizing a redesign to meet the contextualized needs of people living in urban poverty during COVID-19, beginning with a pilot including 5000 participants in urban settings.
“Keeping in mind the diversity of urban environments, there has been much work in creating robust targeting methods, identifying asset and cash based livelihood options, and supporting struggling livelihoods in order to create a highly contextualized program specific to the needs of those living in urban poverty,” said Moklesur Rahman, Senior Manager of Operations for the Ultra-Poor Graduation.
Given its emphasis on adaptability and contextualization to household realities, the Graduation approach can be an effective tool against rising tides of urban poverty. Leveraging tailored holistic interventions to respond to unique stressors and barriers, provides comprehensive support and a viable safety net to help households thrive not just survive the challenges of the urban poverty landscape.