UPG & Me: 20 Years of the Graduation Approach | Personal Reflections of Dr Imran Matin

As BRAC celebrates 20 years of the ultra-poor graduation (UPG) program within the broader context of the Golden Jubilee of BRAC and Bangladesh last year, I reflect on how my intimate involvement with the program in its formative years has fundamentally shaped my approach to the problem of poverty and, more generally, development and my lifelong passion for learning from people and their lived realities as a principle source of knowledge to design solutions that work.

A fresh PhD graduate with no clear idea about what I wanted to do with my life, I came back to Dhaka after a stint at the World Bank in DC and joined BRAC in 2001. Looking back, I consider myself extremely lucky to have made that decision—leaving an exalted world of high development bureaucracy that has a tenuous, distant connection with the people it aims to support and landing into BRAC, an organization born out of the deep connection with the people of this land in their most desperate times.

At that time, BRAC’s UPG proposal writing was going on (Targeting the Ultra-Poor or TUP at that time). Immediately, I confronted a vibrant organizational culture of debate, based on research and programmatic challenges faced in the field. The integrated Rural Development Program (RDP) had already run for 20 years in four phases. Each phase had an impact assessment system, from which a critique was already emerging about the failure of microcredit not reaching the poorest. I participated in animated, active conversations on how research should inform program design. There were also a lot of lively debates on who actually the poorest were and what their real problems were. I realized that I came upon the mecca of on-the-ground, research-based, critical development.

I spent the best part of my first two years in the field, doing mostly informal, formative research. Most importantly, a city person with little experience with rural life, I absorbed everything I observed like a sponge. To me, research and program became intertwined, with the people at the centre. I observed how the targeting was done, and what the targeting verification process was, and tried to understand why. I travelled with program colleagues and lived and breathed in the everyday lives and details of the program—learning intensively about design, ongoing iterations, and implementation.

I was fascinated to see how the Participatory Wealth Ranking (PWR) method that I had known as a research tool was now being used as a program targeting tool in the UPG program at scale. Targeting criteria were based on the national estimates, i.e, Household Income and Expenditure Survey data, but it would be customized with PWR. I was thrilled by the idea of integrating national and formal with local and tacit knowledge, and the possibility of developing an effective, localized, and yet standardized model of targeting.

The idea for the first few years was to learn intensively. Only 5,000 households in the monga– (seasonal famine) affected region in the north of the country were targeted in 2002, and I was given the responsibility for the research of the program. It was an opportunity for deep immersive learning, a phase of action learning. During this time, I worked hard to imbibe in my small team, a culture of action research and a dialogical relationship, where the researchers would be excited and hungry to learn about small program details, and the program colleagues would actively co-create the research questions based on real programmatic challenges. We were enlightening each other. We were not in a hurry or focused on producing formal research outputs per se. We just wanted to learn so that we could use it to improve the program’s outcome. We of course ended up producing an impressive range of journal publications and creating a lot of global interest in this important innovation.

I particularly remember two moments of epiphany during my UPG field visits. These events sealed in my mind the criticality of the context in which people live, the relational nature of poverty, and the crying need for considering both program design and research.

The first incident was around targeting. After the PWR, a mini-survey on the bottom group in the wealth ranking would be carried out to select final participants. It was quickly discovered that some households were not even on the list prepared during the PWR. We initially thought that this was due to a deliberate exclusion by the PWR participants due to village politics and power. We wanted to dig deeper. We found out that these “excluded” households were mostly without any homestead land of their own and were staying as “dependents” in other people’s homesteads. Economically, these households were independent, but socially, they were not considered independent households. We realised that the “exclusion” was not deliberate but due to the terms we used for households during the PWR exercise—we used the word khana, while these types of households were locally termed as utholi, those who stay in other peoples’ homestead. We immediately took a number of steps to incorporate these learnings. The importance of questioning received ways of seeing and thinking, and the centrality of social and local in development knowledge generation and action got hardwired in me since this experience.

Then came the question of protecting the asset given to participating households. Most of these households did not have space in their homestead to rear the poultry and livestock and would keep them next to where they slept by extending their room. Some did not have their own homesteads. The cage rearing of poultry would create a stench, while the goats would stray into neighbours’ vegetable plots. Neighbours would demotivate the UPG members and there would be frequent conflicts related to assets.

For the first time, I observed first-hand the relational nature of poverty, and the importance of genuine community engagement who were not the direct beneficiaries of the program. To address this challenge, we came up with the idea of the Gram Daridro Bimochon Committee, finding and organizing people in the community who were more empathetic and helpful to the poor people.

I have been involved with UPG ever since in some capacity, albeit my hiatus for a few years when I was working with Save the Children International. But, my immersion with UPG in its early years has changed me forever, not only as a researcher but also in how I look at the world and the possibilities of making it better, as a person.

Dr Imran Matin is the Executive Director of the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University.

“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 second part here