By Lindsay Coates | Managing Director, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative
The international community cannot work in silos and expect to end extreme poverty. Poverty is multidimensional. The most effective and powerful interventions that empower people to escape the poverty trap address the lives of people living in poverty holistically. A truly holistic approach leverages stakeholders from all parts of society collaborating to uplift people from the most marginalized communities. This is a matter of social justice, not of charity.
And, this is urgent. By the end of 2021, COVID-19 will have forced approximately 150 million more people into extreme poverty. Despite dire circumstances, we can still make meaningful progress on poverty eradication. Before the pandemic struck, global extreme poverty was consistently falling. From 2011 to 2019 alone, it fell from 1.1 billion people to 691 million.
Social protection systems designed to meet the needs of people living in extreme poverty were key to this progress. World Bank research shows 36 percent of the global reduction in extreme poverty has been due to social protection programs, and a recent study found that one percent of GDP invested in social protection can lead to a seven percent decline in national poverty rates. Coordinated international action to serve people from marginalized communities through social protection has also been essential to preventing even worse impacts from COVID-19. In 2020, countries launched over 1400 programs and invested over $800 billion USD as a social protection response to the pandemic. One study estimates that income support programs alone prevented over 3 million more COVID-19 cases and over 165,000 additional deaths worldwide.
These lifesaving, transformational programs are often government-led, but ultimately multisectoral efforts that bring together governments, multilaterals, civil society, the private sector, and academia to maximize impact. Looking to the future, we need to drive systems change for progress on poverty alleviation through collaboration. BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative‘s (UPGI) experiences adapting the Graduation approach with diverse partners in varied contexts, from urban slums in Tamil Nadu, India to pastoralists in rural areas of Kitui County, Kenya, demonstrate that adapting programs and policies strengthens impact and makes systems more resilient, adaptive, and inclusive. And we see this demonstrated even during a global pandemic.
In the Philippines, a successful government-led Graduation program leverages financing from a multilateral development bank, technical expertise from an NGO, and market linkages to the private sector. The Philippines Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Graduation pilot program received funding from the Asian Development Bank. BRAC UPGI used knowledge of Graduation program design and implementation to adapt the program to the challenges posed by COVID-19 lockdowns last year. By connecting participants to existing government services, the Graduation program made the social protection system more inclusive, lowered costs, and ensured 96 percent of participants received cash from the national government. This social assistance came as livelihoods were disrupted by the pandemic, making this integration with other government programming all the more critical.
We developed partnership agreements with local vendors to give program participants access to the productive assets, training, and support needed for livestock-based livelihoods like poultry and swine fattening. Our private sector partners offered livelihoods training, additional vitamins and medicines for livestock, and veterinary services. During the pandemic, two-thirds of participants continued developing their livelihoods and 76 percent continued earning incomes even during lockdowns.
BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation (UPG) program in Bangladesh offers another model of how multi- stakeholder collaboration varies for the greatest impact based on local context. BRAC itself implements the Bangladesh UPG program and funds it in part through its own social enterprises. It has achieved success at scale, empowering over 2.1 million households to escape the poverty trap since 2002. BRAC’s direct implementation also guides its innovations to adapt the Graduation approach to serve diverse contexts and communities, such as people with disabilities, urban and newly poor populations, and refugee host communities, as well as its program adaptations for climate change. As we have seen during the COVID-19 crisis, the UPG program enables participants to access essential government services and connects them to community services through community mobilisation so they can meet their basic needs. Building on existing government and community programs makes the Graduation approach more effective and makes these programs more inclusive of people in extreme poverty.
Sufia, a UPG program participant, had her livelihood disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Her home was severely damaged by Cyclone Amphan in May 2020. BRAC staff provided Sufia and her family training on virus prevention strategies, and connected them to both community and government relief services that provided food and hygiene supplies as well as a food stipend and assistance to repair their home. Within a short period of time, she was able to repair her home and restore her livelihood. Her story teaches us that by using the funds at scale generated by social enterprise, the implementation experience of the world’s largest NGO, and the social protection and aid provided by government and civil society actors, we can empower people impacted by climate, health, and economic shocks to escape extreme poverty and transform their lives.
Multisectoral partnerships to end extreme poverty demand collaboration between researchers, designers, and implementers of transformative programs as well. To successfully bring anti-poverty interventions to scale through governments, we need to design them to be as effective as possible, and we need evidence they work in a variety of contexts. BRAC has been fortunate enough to work with both the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and Innovations for Poverty Action to rigorously test, evaluate, and analyze Graduation program outcomes. Through these research partnerships and our internal evaluations, BRAC has gained valuable insights we’ve used to continuously improve and iterate on the Graduation approach, refining it to better meet the needs of people in extreme poverty in more than 14 countries around the world.
BRAC knows that collaborating with government, multilateral, private sector, research, and civil society partners makes anti-poverty programming more effective at scale. When the international community and local partners collaborate, we can amplify the impacts of an intervention with the potential to enable millions of people to escape extreme poverty long-term. We need more of this way of working to end extreme poverty.