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Graduating Out of Poverty – Can It Be Done? – Poverty Unpacked

 September 29, 2022 • 27 minute read

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By Dr. Keetie Roelen, Research Fellow and Co-Director | Centre for Social Protection

This interview was original published on Poverty Unpacked on September 29, 2022. Listen here.

Empowering families in poverty to take control and set them on a path towards a better life, this is at the core of so-called ‘graduation’ programmes. By providing families with a combination of material support, training and coaching, they can develop new forms of income generation and improve their living conditions.

It is the 20-year anniversary of the inception of the ‘graduation approach’ and its first implementation by BRAC in Bangladesh. Research shows that they can help to improve lives and that these improvements are maintained years after families completed the programme. Yet the programmes are not a silver bullet, nor do they work for everyone.

In this episode, we’re joined by Greg Chen and Rozina Haque, both working on the graduation programmes with BRAC. Greg is the Managing Director for BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative, leading their strategy to expand the global uptake of the graduation approach. Rozina is the Associate Director of Ultra-Poor Graduation and Livelihood Programme Development and Innovation at BRAC and BRAC International. She leads and provides strategic direction to the graduation programme for BRAC in Bangladesh and internationally.

We discuss the benefits of the graduation approach, as well as challenges such as including marginalised groups and adapting the programme to different contexts so that it is most effective.

Greg and Rozina also respond to concerns that graduation programmes place the responsibility of moving out of poverty with families themselves, and that they are resource intensive. They point out that it’s about making most effective use of funds already available and that it’s not either or: the reality is that most countries need to empower poor families to resolve their own situation and to put in place social protection programmes that directly support families.

Rozina and Greg mention various studies that looked at the impact of graduation programmes. This includes an impact evaluation of the long-term effects of the approach, a study on how the programme has helped its beneficiaries to be more resilient to the shock of COVID-19 and a multi-country study of programmes’ long-term effects.


Hi there. And welcome to Poverty Impact, the podcast series in which we discuss the hidden side of poverty. I’m your host, Casey Rubin. And in conversation with others, we explore how poverty affects the mind, relationship, emotions and society as a whole and what can be done to change it in this episode. We’re going to talk about so-called graduation programs.

And in this case, the term graduation doesn’t refer to schooling or education, but is used to refer to moving out of poverty or graduating out of poverty. And this type of programing was first introduced in Bangladesh by the NGO BRAC, which is now 20 years ago. And to mark the occasion of when it was first implemented. Today I’m talking with Greg Chen and Rozina Haque, both working on the graduation programs with BRAC. Greg Chen is managing director for the BRAC Ultra Poor Graduation Initiative.

This means he leads the initiative strategy to expand the global uptake of the graduation approach. Greg works with partners and governments outside of Bangladesh, and especially where extreme poverty is highly concentrated. And he does so to see whether there are existing poverty alleviation programs in those countries that can be reshaped to better serve those for this behind. Rozina Haque she is associate director of the Ultra Poor Graduation and Livelihood Program Development and Innovation at BRAC and BRAC International.

And as part of these roles, Rozina leaves and provides strategic direction to the graduation program for BRAC in Bangladesh, as well as internationally, including in countries such as Uganda, Tanzania and Afghanistan. Greg and Rozina, thank you very much for joining us today. Rozina, graduation programs. They originated in Bangladesh. BRAC a pioneering the approach. Can you tell us a little bit about who BRAC are to begin with?

Thanks, Kitty, for this question. Yes. Let’s start with what BRAC is backing first born from the aspiration of the liberation war of Bangladesh back in 1972. BRAC emerged as a non-governmental organization with immediate relief support for the war affected population Later responded to the rehabilitation, introduced microfinance and various long term development initiatives. So the values of the liberation, war and the rationale of proxy margins are integrated with each other.

Now, today, in fact, BRAC is more than Bangladesh ideal and termed as one of the largest an NGO now. And BRAC itself is a development success story which is spreading solutions borne in Bangladesh and creating opportunity for the was for being at the forefront of poverty alleviation, disaster recovery, health, education, microfinance and many development areas. We are touching the lives of more than 110 million people in a year, predominantly women in Bangladesh and in other countries.

So this is a very short brief on BRAC Thank you, Zena, for that introduction to BRAC, Greg. The graduation program includes various components, different types of support, if you will. Can you say a little bit more about what those components are and also what makes this approach so different from other anti-poverty interventions? So I think it’s worth reflecting a little bit on the history of how this emerged.

BRAC in the 1980s and even into the 1990s was a very large national anti-poverty poverty program. But what the research and evidence began to show fairly clearly was that BRAC was failing to meet those who were living in the most extreme forms of poverty. And so many of the traditional anti-poverty programs were working for many, but there were large pockets of people being left out.

So that was a learning on the part of BRAC that led to the development of the different kinds of interventions. And I should say that the testing of these interventions happened over almost a decade before we really landed on the formula that that we’ve come to rely upon in 2002. So just to say there is a history of evidence and learning that has gone into this from a very practitioner approach of of failing often and learning from those failures and developing the approach that we have.

And I’ll come a little bit later that it’s not formulaic, but that there are some essential elements to it but that are adaptable to different environments. But let me mention what those elements are. And to say that it’s important that these be constructed and sequenced in the right way, as well as being being formulae in the way that you have a recipe and you cook, it matters when things are added and how you arrive at at the meal at the end, not just the pieces, but let me mention the pieces.

So the first is, is meeting basic needs. If people are hungry or they have some very urgent matter, they can’t plan for the future. So we’ve got to address that most urgent need first. Then there is a transition to a new kind of an income generating asset or activity it could be even a wage type job, but it’s an opportunity to increase their income.

And that depends quite a bit on the context or environment of where the opportunities are and sometimes where there is a lack of opportunities and what some of the limitations of the approach might be. Then there is a link to some regular savings to one gets into the practice. Savings, in essence, is a form of planning for the future for all of us.

And so it’s an important thing to do, not just for the amount of money that’s put aside, but as a as a psychological activity, because I’m setting aside something that I have a plan for that’s late related to connect young people within their community to address some of the resistance that might be found in the community in the village through what we broadly call social empowerment.

But this is getting the program and people accepted by the wider power structures. And then there’s, you know, throughout all of this, there is an ongoing coaching element coaching. By coaching, we mean someone shows up at the doorstep of the participants at least once a week or so, sometimes a little less frequently. But there is that regular interaction, and that has a lot to do with momentum and self-confidence.

And the final piece is just a more descriptive piece, which is that the program is very responsive to the environment and what’s happening, but also to the particular circumstances of each participant. And so it’s it’s adapting and being a bit responsive to how the program inputs those various elements are in combination found to have hugely complementary effects. And the the removal of any one of the elements might mean the failure of all of them.

That’s why it’s important to do in a proper sequence package. That’s very clear. Thank you. And we’ll come to some examples from different contexts in a minute. And you know how the various components might make up a different meal depending on where you are. But first, I’d like to ask Kristina, from your experience in the field and on the ground in Bangladesh.

Can you explain a little bit how this program plays out in practice and what kind of changes you’ve seen in people’s lives as a result of them participating in the program? Yes, that’s a really good question. Did not mention is one of the most evidence backed approaches to change the resilience of sustainability of the participants in a rigorous Government-Sponsored trial conducted by the Ministry of Economy and Vibe.

And the results support that not supported seven years participating in the program. They continue on an upward trajectory out of poverty. Results showed that at 37% in the normal, earning 10% in in conjunction of spending in nine, forcing savings and imposing fees in access to land. Even after completing the program cycle four to seven years back, So other outcomes no significant increase in water productivity and household assist, access to more stability, secured employment and most importantly, there is a significant reduction in economic inequality and significant gradients towards foster recovery from shocks.

Another study was conducted by the UN on the 2007 cohort to check the resilience of the participants even during pandemic. How they respond to disadvantage The study findings also revealed that the addition of shock responses to the participants were benefited people so they were able to maintain the better condition by utilizing their savings and technical know how to create alternative or diversified income sources to cope with the second shocks.

Thank you, Rozina. So clearly some very positive results and benefits of the program. And Greg, you mentioned just now how the program is being adapted and implemented outside of Bangladesh as well, and that there are these various components, but that they might be implemented differently in different places. Can you speak to that a little bit more? Can you provide some examples of where the program is implemented and also how it looks different in different places?

Yeah, let me let me try and answer this in two parts and link back to what Rozina has started in with on the evidence and say, you know, more than a decade ago, the program was very purposely evaluated and tested outside Bangladesh. And it’s been heavily evaluated in at least six and probably quite a few more countries outside.

And the results are not universally, but almost are very heavily positive overall. But I think what’s important in the nuance of that is that there are quite a number of interventions that have positive outcomes for poor people. But what’s important about the graduation is really that the benefits start to accumulate and increase over time. And so the long term evaluations are perhaps the most encouraging.

Now they’re relatively few at seven or ten years in length. Doesn’t happen very often, and you need a long time frame. But some of those show that the the benefits accruing to participants continue long after the intervention is over. So I think that’s really the distinguishing feature of graduation compared to some other kinds of interventions that relates then to this question about taking it to other contexts.

And just to say the evidence has been very encouraging in other environments. But of course that depends a lot on being sure the program is adapted appropriately to the context and opportunities that people have. And that’s why we tend to think about the program components that I described earlier as what we call essentials. But there’s sort of minimums that could be adapted in almost any environments.

And so we’ve got programs that are happening in deeply climate affected parts of the Sahel, across the Sahel, regions of East Africa especially. We are so directly involved in a program in Tunisia which is adapting the program to climate risks, such as the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events and changes in temperature and precipitation, partly because people need to find and move on to new kinds of livelihoods.

And the program can be shaped in order to capture some of the new, new opportunities that are coming to some of the people in different ways. We have programs that are intending to work with people who are displaced by changes in industry programs being thought about for people who used to be in coal extraction work in India, shifting over to a new kind of livelihood.

And then there are programs intended for people who are maybe more like live in forested areas, so are not purely agricultural and so have a different kind of livelihood. So we believe that these programs can be adapted not every environment. So we have to caution. Is graduation going to be a magical solution where there is limited economic opportunity overall?

Things like graduation may not be able to overcome all problems. And so you do need to be a little bit conscientious that it may not be useful in all environments at all extreme conditions. Thanks, Greg. And that is a nice segue into my next question and be nice to hear both your views on this. And maybe I’ll start with with Rozina and that surrounds the impact of the program, but also one of its criticisms in that almost all the responsibility for moving out of poverty is placed with families.

They receive a generous package of supports, but then are expected to improve their livelihoods and graduates out of poverty, if you will, ideally to become self-sufficient. And Greg, like you mentioned, this can be hard when there are few economic opportunities. There might not be markets nearby, for example. So how do you respond to some of those concerns and criticisms of the graduation program?

Are they valid? And if so, what can you do to either further improve them or maybe accept that some programs or some other programs need to be put in place for student contexts in certain groups? Yes, this is true at some extent, but this shouldn’t be a barrier to reach out. Most of these Adventist people who really needs to be brought under such a development program someday in Bangladesh context, local market is well-developed, but this is not a general phenomenon.

We know far most of the countries, in which case for longer term sustainability of market development and market rankings, both exclusion and that can be increased through proper program design, contextual adaptation. For example, in case of market unavailability, we can think of group approach or group activity to cultivate agricultural products and bring the market actors to to the field to preach between producers and traders.

So we can respond to this question in this way. That the graduation approach is not a cookie-cutter approach. It is not a silver bullet at all. Rather highly adaptive based on the context and therefore absence of market. Should it be a barrier to either the graduation approach where it is needed? Always we are learning by doing and we believe that we have to come up with alternative solution.

I wouldn’t disagree with the perception that the work done to move out of poverty is with the parties serpents and their families. We agree with that perception. We would just say it is perhaps a view that maybe has your European welfare state origins that, you know, people need to be protected. BRAC arose out of the very poor country, out of a independence fight where there were no options other than for people themselves to take fighting poverty on their own.

And as a core belief at BRAC, we believe the vast majority of the work and the answers to poverty lie with poor people themselves. It’s a core belief coming out of our experience in Bangladesh And so the idea that they’re responsible, we would turn that around and say, we very much believe in the empowerment of poor people to take control of their own lives.

And we’ve seen that happen in Bangladesh over decades. And so that is absolutely a core belief underlying our gradual approach. And we don’t apologize for it. That’s very clear. Thank you both for those responses. It does bring me then to the next question, which is exactly about the link between support through programs like the graduation program, support by organizations like BRAC, which emphasize people in Poverty’s own agency and empowerment, but then that link with government support and in countries like Bangladesh and where a lot of the graduation programs are implemented, there is an increased push for social protection mechanisms and for more formal types of social protection, if you will.

Can you reflect a little bit on how that sets with the implementation of graduation programs? By BRAC and other organizations? And also in relation to what you just mentioned about bottom up anti-poverty interventions and creates agency and empowerment through people in poverty themselves? Yeah, I should say that, you know, our primary strategy beyond Bangladesh today and BRAC is to really see governments take on much more the programing and delivery because they have they’re already spending large amounts on social protection programs and they are already trying to address this problem at large scale in some of their countries.

So just to say, we are very keen that the government in fact the program I manage is principally focused on supporting governments and catalyzing governments to to adopt more effective graduation like approaches in addressing extreme poverty. To your point, we do not see this as an either or either it must be bottom up or it must be some kind of social protection program.

The reality is that most poor countries have to do a little bit of both in terms of getting poor people to be more empowered to solve some of their own programs while also growing and developing the fiscal space and the government capacity to meet more of their social protection needs. And that’s not an either or choice as we see it.

In fact, both. Both need to happen. If we were, though, without a some bottom up approach, asking governments to provide entirely social protection programs without developing the income or capacities of large swaths of poor people, the reality is most governments couldn’t afford to do that today, and they can’t and they’re not doing it. And so, you know, the bottom line is we need more of both social protection and bottom up graduation programs.

In almost all the countries where we work. So very much a twin track approach. Rozina, would you agree with that? We also feel and believe that integrating and filling up the graduation approach into government, existing social and economic programs and policies can be more impactful because of transformational social protection to productive inclusion nowadays. And empowering people to escape extreme poverty is possible, but we cannot do it alone.

Activity instead of a global partnership is required now for scaling it up. So one of our attention is now developing partnership with government and other stakeholders to advocacy. Thank you, Rozina. So let me then ask you both, what do you see as the future of of graduation programs and what might be some of the challenges as well as opportunities ahead?

You mentioned working with governments, integrating it in social protection systems at the same time because of all its components. It’s also quite a resource heavy and expensive program and might be difficult for governments to take on. So there might be tweaking required for governments to adopt graduation programs. How do you see the future scaling up and reaching more people with this kind of program?

Yeah, so going back to the original origins and BRAC, I mean, tweaking and getting making things cost effective and scalable was very much part of the thinking. 20 years ago when we started this. So we’re all in favor of that. At the same time, you know, the core essentials need to be there. So how do you find the right balance inside government?

And I would take a slight issue with the question that these are resource intensive in the sense that compared to what right now, governments are making billions of dollars of investments into anti-poverty programs. So the issue isn’t so much about adding to those investments, but rather many of those investments are going into elements of what we call graduation.

The question is not so much about new financing by governments or by multilaterals or donors, but rather how do you make the existing investments much more impactful and financially viable over the longer timeframe? And so that’s really what we’re focused on, is getting more return on investment from the money that’s already going into anti-poverty programs. And what is the main challenge?

I think the main challenge is getting the right combination and sequence of things. But I would say we see some encouraging signs. And I will just mention the GVC program in the state of Bihar. In India, which has been developing a graduation style approach as a window in addition to its main rural livelihoods programing And in the last couple of years, even through the pandemic, it’s expanded a program that’s serving 100 and nearly 150,000 households in Bihar, who are among the most extreme and excluded in that province.

So we see evidence that governments can do this at scale out of their own budgets. That’s very, very promising indeed. And Rozina, what about your reflections in terms of Bangladesh? The challenge is I would say that earlier on this program it was something that nearly 30% population of Bangladesh are living below the poverty line among which 70% are found is ultra poor.

So therefore they weren’t most interested and it was easy to find them. But Devi, they’d be left behind. A group is becoming more compact due to their characteristics. And as the property trade is also decreasing, they are now mostly leaving pocket areas that means wages. So they are getting be a challenge to find or to start a population.

And also we are, I think, considering the need of the marginalized, maybe we need to think about how we can more bring the contextualized situation in the while we design our program as it is, how we can make this program more inclusive for the marginalized people, people. So that means that ensuring no and in terms of government, as you know, that vision approaches adaptive.

So we can actually definitely adopt this model into the existing government, social protection program, rather reinventing the wheel. That is how we can even reduce the cost. If you also think about the cost of not doing these things right now, then definitely it’s a beneficial to black community, the kinds of things that are not doing it. So one of the things and I have to be careful to caution at the beginning, we have BRAC and the graduation program doesn’t take credit for all of this or you know, we’ve done our share. But Bangladesh is about to graduate into lower middle income status. And so when you go and you look for extreme poverty in Bangladesh, it’s still there, but it’s far less than it was 20 years ago, far less. And so we can talk about the concerns with costs and other things, but think about the fiscal advantages that Bangladesh has today in terms of being able to target what resources it has in its programing as it moves out a lower income to a higher income status country.

It’s changed the face of Bangladesh. Absolutely. I take both your points that when voicing the criticism that this is a resource heavy and expensive program questions as compared to what’s and also what is the cost of not doing anything or the cost of inaction are really relevant responses. Rozina, if I can, I’d like to pick up on what you said about the challenge of reaching out to marginalized groups.

Could you elaborate a little bit from the Bangladesh context, what groups they are and what kind of struggles you’ve seen in reaching out to them and what you might change so that the program is also inclusive of them? We need to we need to be more innovative in terms of targeting generally. Let me give you one example. When we selected participants earlier, we found that in one village, maybe in one spot, you will get like ten, ten to eleven participants, but now you will get like maybe the six to seven participants in some cases these five.

That means when you will get less number of population in a, you know, auditable population in a village, then you have to adapt the operations operation and the strategy based on that availability. You need to bring the new version in your targeting methodology. We need to do it properly to bring the right kind of in fact, what actually we, we export, I’m afraid we’ve come to it’s the end of our conversation and really interesting to hear about the graduation approach and programs.

Before we close, I’d like to ask you both if there’s anything else that you’d like to share with our listeners. Either something I haven’t asked about or that you haven’t been able to share just yet. Rozina, could I start with you? Sure. I would like to focus a little bit more on the innovation, what we are bringing in Bangladesh based on our 20 years journey in Bangladesh, along with the global adaptation of graduation approaches.

We gather future earnings and bringing new innovation and strategies to being relevant with the chance context. When you launched this program a long time ago in Bangladesh, then the poverty was predominant, but now Bangladesh poverty is transient. Therefore, we need to adapt the addition based on this context. Now there are new forms of poverty. Citizens’ aspirations are changing.

The state is more active and development of technological invention is there. So keeping all these in mind is the high time graduation approach and make it more responsive. And we also need to bring complex settings into consideration while designing program such as for those who live in our urban buildings to reach areas climate hotspot and also need to be more inclusive for the marginalized and vulnerable groups.

For example, persons with disabilities, indigenous and minority communities. So based on these learnings and observations program in Bangladesh is currently prioritizing urban poverty, climate adaptive graduation programs, targeting hard to reach areas and marginalized vulnerable groups. In addition, as we talked about, like small market development initiatives are crucial to attain the sustainable economic growth for these participants. So one of our main focus is market development initiatives too. I would like to state that since inception now the education has been guided by our founders so that when you give people that the tools and the resources they need to empower themselves, they have agency dignity and both needed to transform their lives and their communities.

So I also believe this a statement and can say that we just need to work as a catalyst to accelerate district changes. Thank you for these final words for Rozina and for sharing the work ahead. Clearly very many exciting things in the pipeline, Greg. First of all, thank you for just highlighting this topic. And its approach. We value the opportunity to share a few things.

Just to add at the end, you know, on the government’s uptake that we’re very encouraged that we are seeing high quality programs in a dozen or more countries coming up in, you know, being led by governments and being tested. I would mention first and foremost, India, Philippines. We’re doing some work in South Africa. Ethiopia has a large program.

These are our are our variants on the graduation approach, some better than others, perhaps, but there’s quite a bit of development going on in the government’s team, taking existing programs and refining and making them better. And the second is that some of those are actually and I think I mentioned earlier the program in Bihar and in India is that some of these are actually becoming quite scalable and sizable.

And for us, a sort of rule of thumb would be when a program starts to reach 100,000 or more, and we’re seeing that in India, especially right now, we feel that the Philippines is also poised to do something at a much larger scale. So those are those are just a couple of encouraging things or signs on the horizon.

Thank you for sharing this, Greg, and for pointing us to other examples in different parts of the world. And we’ll make sure to share these in the notes for this podcast episode as well. Rozina and Greg, thank you both very much for joining. And I’m sure the listeners will find this a very interesting episode Thank you for listening.

We hope you enjoyed this episode and we’re sorry that we experienced some technical difficulties and that you weren’t always able to hear Rozina as clearly as we would have liked to. If you have any suggestions for further episodes or we’d like to leave a review her always happy to hear from you. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram and of course via our website.

Poverty Hyphen Unpacked Dot org. We hope you’ll join us again next time.

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