By Max Gollin | Deputy Manager of Communications, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative
The majority of economic inclusion programs – such as those built on BRAC’s Graduation approach – have had significant positive impacts on participants’ incomes, resilience to shocks, assets, consumption, savings, child education, health, and nutrition, subjective well being, and women’s empowerment, as The State of Economic Inclusion Report 2021 shows. However, many in the international development community still have burning questions around the potential for economic inclusion programs to deliver long-term impact at scale, especially when led by governments. In a recent blog, SEI Report contributing authors Puja Dutta, Sarang Chaudhary, and Boban Paul of the World Bank addressed these key remaining debates in the economic inclusion/Graduation space. At BRAC UPGI, we would like to provide our audience with our own perspective on these debates based on our learnings and experiences since pioneering the Graduation approach nearly two decades ago.
Before diving into these debates, it is important to note that economic inclusion programs are already increasingly government-led and operating at scale. As highlighted in the SEI Report 2021, there are already 219 economic inclusion (EI) programs reaching over 90 million participants across 75 countries around the world. Based on current trends, EI programs could reach 20 percent of all people in extreme poverty worldwide by 2030.
As the evidence base for EI interventions has continued to grow and pilot programs have consistently delivered positive outcomes for people living in extreme poverty, governments have increasingly become at the helm of implementation at scale. Government-led interventions make up only half of all EI programs, but they now cover approximately 90 percent of all people reached by EI worldwide. Remaining questions around EI interventions are less about whether they are effective or whether they can scale, but more about how impactful they are and how they can best be delivered.
Debate 1: Are these impacts sustained over time?
In their blog, Dutta, Chaudhary, and Paul note that while medium-term impacts of EI programs are evident, less is known about long-term impacts. They also state that “limited evidence suggests that long-term impact sustain up to seven years, but the effects dissipate after nine to ten years.”
Based on the evidence around EI programs founded on the Graduation approach, we believe these programs can have sustained impact even beyond seven years. Recent research from Atiya Rahman, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) and Oriana Bandiera, London School of Economics, examined the impacts of COVID-19 on Graduation participants who began the program 13 years earlier. They found participants who had successfully “graduated” from extreme poverty were more likely to have salaried jobs or be self-employed instead of relying on casual labor, giving them greater job security despite the impacts of the pandemic.
The authors conclude that the evidence base on long-term impacts of EI programs, especially government-led interventions, needs to be broadened. We agree wholeheartedly. While the existing research shows potential impacts for participants more than a decade after starting BRAC’s Graduation program, we need a robust long-term research agenda to prove this is possible in a variety of contexts with governments at the helm.
Debate 2: Does bundling of coordinated, multisectoral interventions matter?
Despite the proven impacts of EI programs, is the whole truly greater than the sum of its parts? We concur with Dutta, Chaudhary, and Paul that “a bundled set of multisectoral, coordinated interventions does appear to have a larger impact on income, assets, and savings relative to stand-alone interventions.”
Not only do integrated, complementary interventions matter, but it is also this holistic approach which is central to program impact. People in the most extreme states of poverty have multidimensional needs, yet they face unique challenges and barriers that increase their vulnerability, inhibiting them from escaping the poverty trap.
EI programs based on Graduation are impactful because they address multidimensional aspects of extreme poverty purposefully and holistically. They go beyond improving incomes alone by building sustainable, long-term livelihoods and empowering people in extreme poverty to plan for the future. By breaking down the complex and interlinked barriers that keep people trapped in extreme poverty, the Graduation approach is able to provide the “big push” needed to empower people to improve their wellbeing for years to come.
We agree further research is needed to continuously understand the value add of each component of Graduation, but BRAC has found through 20 years of evaluation and iteration that there are four key pillars which are consistently essential to success: meeting basic needs, income generation, financial support & savings, and social empowerment.
Debate 3: Do government-led economic inclusion programs also have impacts?
Because the expansion in government-led EI interventions has been relatively recent, there is less research to prove their effectiveness relative to non-government-led programs. This will be one of the most pressing knowledge gaps for the global community of practice to address, and BRAC UPGI is committed to generating learning in this area. Evaluations of government-led programs on which we have provided technical advisory services prove they can deliver results for people who face the most extreme states of poverty, even in the face of major shocks like climate change and COVID-19. However, given their limited size, there is a need for robust evaluations of similar government programs at scale.
The Philippines Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) Graduation project, in partnership with the Asian Development Bank and with technical assistance from BRAC UPGI, enabled participants to build resilience despite COVID-19 lockdowns. As of July 2020, 76% of participants were able to continue earning an income even during lockdown by diversifying livelihoods. 75% of participants used their savings to support their households, while only 20% took out loans. 96% of Graduation pilot participants received cash assistance from the national government, in part due to linkages with existing social protection programs. Based on these proven impacts despite the pandemic, we are partnering with The Philippines Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) on a second iteration spanning multiple provinces.
Meanwhile, the Sahel Adaptive Social Protection Program (SASPP) at the World Bank is demonstrating the potential for EI to empower women in extreme poverty to build resilience at scale. By integrating an EI approach into existing government social protection systems, the program was able to keep costs low and set up effective monitoring systems while reaching over 50,000 participants across the Sahel region.
These examples illustrate the potential of government programs to empower people who have been marginalized and excluded from existing systems despite ongoing crises. However, we recognize this is somewhat anecdotal – which is why we back a robust research agenda to evaluate the long-term impact of government-led Graduation programs.
The Future Research Agenda
While we are confident that government-led EI programs can have long-term impact at scale, we need a stronger evidence base to make the case to leaders and policymakers worldwide. Constant evaluation and adaptation will also be key to refining government EI programs to make them more impactful, more cost-effective, and better integrated into existing social protection systems. By combining internal research with strong research partnerships and external knowledge sharing, the community of practice around EI and Graduation can continue to improve interventions and better establish their long-term effects.
This is why BRAC UPGI is honored to be a Funding Partner of the Partnership for Economic Inclusion. PEI is doing crucial work convening global conversations around EI and supporting the global knowledge base of evidence around these programs. Over the next several years, we at BRAC UPGI are also expanding our own learning and innovation capacity to broaden the evidence base for economic inclusion further, building knowledge on long-term impacts, integration with government systems, and adapting Graduation to changing local contexts.