By Elaina Conrad | Communications Associate & Jake Konig | Content Development Associate, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative
As we pass the year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we face the devastating impacts this pandemic has had on the most poor and vulnerable populations around the world. The pandemic has pushed millions more into extreme poverty, with women and girls at heightened risk of extreme poverty and other challenges such as learning poverty. Combatting these staggering impacts requires evidence-based solutions and global cooperation. At the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) event with support from BRAC UPGI on Tuesday, March 16th, experts from around the world came together to discuss how mainstreaming the Graduation approach can provide one such solution in Asia and the Pacific.
In his keynote address, Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee emphasized the durable impact of the Graduation approach on helping households lift themselves out of poverty.
“It’s very clear that ten years later, the people who got the Graduation program are around 25 percent richer [than the control group], both measured by consumption and income,” Banerjee said.
The importance of this durable effect has been highlighted through the recent shock of COVID-19 and its impacts.
“It is clearer than ever that we must strengthen social protection systems and adopt innovative approaches that recognize the multidimensional nature of poverty,” said Bambang Susantono, Vice President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development at ADB, in his opening remarks.
The need for improved social protection services was a key feature in the panels and presentations hosted by SocialProtection.org.
“The truth is that over 60 percent of our region’s population was not covered by adequate social protections even prior to the pandemic, and as the crisis has underscored, social protection is a vital tool to safeguard and protect those most vulnerable to poverty,” continued Susantono.
Experts such as Alex Avila, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) in the Philippines, Yasuyuki Sawada, Chief Economist and Director General of ADB, and Dean Karlan, founder and president of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) discussed the urgent need for improved policy and the impacts of social protection programs.
“Poverty and deprivation are about so much more than a lack of income,” said Karin Schelzig, Principal Social Sector Specialist at ADB.
While cash transfers provide an essential component of social protection, especially in short-term response to major shocks, escaping the poverty trap long-term requires a multi-faceted approach. Long-term poverty reduction, Schelzig said, comes from building resilience through multidimensional programming.
Dean Karlan echoed these insights, noting the many roots and facets of poverty beyond income alone. Programs like Graduation, however, blend elements of social protection such as cash transfers and other social assistance with income-generating livelihoods, financial inclusion, community integration, and mentorship. This combinatory approach addresses the specific needs of households and communities to strengthen skills and increase resources that lead to long-term economic resilience and lasting progress in areas such as savings, financial services, and psychological resilience — and, despite their customization and complexity, they are able to do it at large scale.
“A lot of these [Graduation] programs are actually operating at scale, so it’s quite exciting to see that it is viable to do it at scale,” Karlan noted.
The importance of layering Graduation with existing government programs and working with both national and local governments was a key theme throughout the event. By leveraging existing programs, Graduation programs can reduce both governments’ budget and logistical demands while encouraging cross-ministerial collaboration and leveraging of resources. Moreover, using these existing programs can amplify the impact of the program itself.
“This is enabling a multiplier effect of resources that a government has already allocated to a particular population or to a larger population and combining and focusing those resources such that it can actually activate a big push to help propel people from extreme poverty,” Lauren Whitehead, Director of Technical Assistance at BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative (UPGI), said.
Key to this amplification is a foundation of social assistance and certain enabling conditions for successful programming and impact. Among these, Whitehead highlighted participant targeting, analysis of household needs, landscape analysis of existing government programs, identification of human capital to leverage, and identification of key impacts to monitor for success.
Each of these elements can build off of existing government programs and resources. Targeting often begins with government registries and data before supplementing those sources with household surveys or community-based targeting exercises, and governments may build human resources through partnerships with NGOs or could utilize alternative coaching methods such as phone trees, volunteer coaching, or existing community workers.
“In setting up a Graduation program, you don’t have to start from scratch,” Schelzig emphasized.
Highlighted in the second half of Tuesday’s event was a Graduation pilot in the Philippines launched by DOLE in partnership with ADB and with technical assistance from BRAC UPGI. Taking place in five sites in Negros Occidental, a region that has experienced significant impacts from COVID-19, these pilots have shown promising results in enhancing households’ economic resilience and ability to handle the shocks of the pandemic.
“The initial results give us the confidence to say that the pilot has succeeded to lay a strong foundation for resilient and sustainable livelihoods,” said Assistant Secretary Avila.
By adapting rapidly to the new constraints of the pandemic, including incorporating digital and remote coaching strategies, the program not only successfully “graduated” 71 percent of participants, but has also led to a new iteration with twice as many households. This new partnership with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), ADB, and BRAC UPGI aims to strengthen the productivity and resilience of 3,000 poor and vulnerable households across three provinces through the Graduation approach with potential to scale through local government units thereafter.
“The key takeaway and what makes this work all the more exciting is that there is indeed strong and consistent evidence in favor of Graduation programs as an effective solution to extreme poverty,” said Bruno Carrasco, Director General of the Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department at ADB.
COVID-19 has brought with it innumerable challenges and shocks to the global community. However, extreme shocks are only increasing in frequency and will continue to disproportionately impact those already most vulnerable due to extreme poverty. By leveraging existing government resources and partnerships across ministries and civil society, the Graduation approach offers an evidence-based approach to reducing those vulnerabilities and helping improve households’ resilience to future shocks.
Watch the entire recorded event on SocialProtection.org’s YouTube channel here.