UPG & Me: 20 Years of the Graduation Approach | People, Stories, & Dreams–My Journey Beyond Numbers: Atiya Rahman

In my younger and more vulnerable years—like Nick Carraway would say—as a post-graduate student of economics at the University of Dhaka, I developed a distinct preference for working with numbers. I thought as many of you who are also from the same field would be able to sympathize that a dataset was enough to tell a story. I carried this notion with me when I joined the research team of the Ultra Poor Graduation (UPG) program in 2015. Little did I know that my naivety was about to be shattered, that a revelation was at hand.

When I first got the chance to play with the program dataset after joining the UPG research team, I wasted no time in trying to analyze whether it could reduce participants’ anxieties about life—a particular interest of mine. Unfortunately, I could not explain the findings. How could it be, it puzzled me, that if the program was improving participant women’s financial well-being, they were still anxious? It was my first clue that I was missing the bigger picture. The second clue came from my colleagues, who shared their vivid, dynamic experiences from the field. These experiences held within them insights that mere black numbers on a white page could not capture. I soon realized that I was only looking at the binary conclusion, and it was evident what I needed to do.

Though a little fuzzy on the exact date, I remember a group of survey enumerators who were recruited for the evaluation study of the UPG program in Jamalpur. I, of course, tagged along. During my stay in Jamalpur, I talked to both program participants and non-participants. And I had found the missing piece to my puzzle. Indeed, both groups were experiencing stress but of a very different nature. The women who did not receive any support from the UPG program were experiencing stress due to hunger and suffering. On the other hand, the beneficiaries—who, thanks to the UPG program, were now engaged in the labour market and made financial decisions—were stressed by their new-found responsibilities. While the stress of the former arose from the winter of despair, that of the latter sprouted out of the spring of hope. This extraordinary complexity of the socioeconomics in action revealed itself to me only after I left the comfort of my swivel chair and talked to the people. I learned that connecting as many dots of dimension as possible was of utmost importance to get a clearer view of the bigger picture. It was as if the researcher in me was acquiring more pixels.

This was the first of many invaluable lessons that I would learn over the years. I tried to embody each of them, as did virtually everyone involved with the UPG program, especially in implementing randomized controlled trials (RCTs)—a popular and effective tool in evaluating the program’s impact. But RCT as a tool is only as effective as its targeting—select the wrong people, and you will get biased estimates. To maintain the rigour in the selection process of RCT implementation—and I was fortunate enough to get the chance to implement more than one—we, particularly the programme-implementing colleagues, had to become part of the community and even the households. Of course, in the process, we faced the inescapable as well as the ineffable dilemma of denying support, at least for the time being, to an equally needy group for the sake of knowledge and rigorous learning.

The UPG program helps us to develop a critical awareness of the nuances of people’s experiences. Thus, those of us who worked closely with the people at the field level, including branch managers and programme officers, accumulated insights that can give a reality check for any researcher. For instance, once I was discussing with one of the branch managers whether we could show awareness-building videos to poor women and their families. He instantly explained the importance of using the local language in such videos. I realized that culture varies not only across countries but also within countries. So, solutions must be modified even though the problem is the same.

Since joining the UPG research team seven long summers ago, I have learned and grown with the program. I have seen the UPG program not only tell the stories of the poor and the marginalized but also equip them with the tools to change those stories—from stories of sorrow and suffering to stories of success and security. There still exist several benefits of this program to be explored, especially psycho-social benefits such as the impact on mental health, aspiration, confidence, etc. So many benefits, challenges, and opportunities lay intertwined and hidden, awaiting many researchers like me to take the journey beyond numbers.

Atiya Rahman an Associate Research Fellow, at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).

“UPG & Me: 20 Years of the Graduation Approach” is an ongoing blog series from BIGD where researchers and practitioners reflect on the impact of the Ultra-Poor Graduation in framing their perspectives in their worldview. Read the first part here, the second part here, the third part here, the fourth part here, and the fifth part here