UPG & Me: 20 Years of the Graduation Approach | Personal Reflections of Dr Munshi Sulaiman

Ultra Poor Graduation Program is 20 years old; so is my professional life as I started my research career with this program. Trying to write something about the journey puts me in a state of mind full of hope and inspiration about possibilities and, at the same time, makes me nostalgic—a feeling that the best days are behind us! I guess this is what psychologists label as “restorative” and “reflective” nostalgia. Anyway, I will not even attempt to give a coherent story, but share a few snippets of several interactions that come to mind as I think of the “good old days.”

After submitting my dissertation as part of my Master of Development Studies (MDS) program at BRAC University, it finally hit me that I needed a job. I knew I wanted to work in research and deal with data. The naive me thought that my career would be in research on international trade as this was my dissertation focus. One fine morning, I just walked into the office of the Director of the then Research and Evaluation Division (RED) of BRAC, Dr Imran Matin with, a copy of my dissertation at hand, and, suffice it to say, without any appointment. I was lucky to have an impromptu interview and was offered a job as a junior research associate.

On the first day of my job, he asked me about my research interest. I replied, very confidently, that I was interested in international trade and specifically in free trade and fair trade. I was, obviously, at the wrong place if that was truly my passion. Handing me a bunch of stapled papers, he said, “There is a program for the ultra-poor that BRAC started this year. Read these and see what research ideas you can come up with. It’s not about international trade, but I think working with this program will make you interested in ultra-poverty.” There could not have been a more accurate prediction about the next 20 years of my professional life.

The most enjoyable part of my job was being in the field. I have been amazed by the depth of human interactions among people who work with BRAC. I got tagged with a team of enumerators in one of my early field visits. The first surprise was after we got off the bus in Nilphamari and asked a rickshaw puller if he could take us to the BRAC office. He asked, “Do you want to go to BRAC BDP, education, or TUP office”. The graduation program used to be known as Targeting Ultra-poor (TUP). Amused by his knowledge, I asked him more about the program on the way and got my first field orientation from someone who would probably not be considered a “stakeholder.”

On the same trip, we went off to collect some data, with the names of some TUP members in a village. I was quite unsure of how to find them in the village with just their names. As we were approaching the village, one of the enumerators stopped our rickshaw van. Pointing at a woman walking with a cow (possibly taking it to the grazing land), she said, “Look at her, looks like a TUP member.” Obviously, our enumerator sister got it right! The TUP member gave us directions to all the participants on our list and was a bit disappointed that she was not on the list. Later I asked the enumerator how she knew that it was a TUP member. She explained that it was the appearance of both the woman and the cow and the fact that this village had a new cohort of beneficiaries, and both matched her “profiling.” It became a thing in our team for the rest of that trip to compete for “who can spot a TUP member first” in every village we went to. It was surprising to me at the beginning, but less so later, that we got it right more often than not. And every time someone got it right, we would shout, “next time you are going to design a study where we will interview the cows to understand the change in their confidence level.”

The level of engagement by the program staff was obviously much deeper than our profiling exercise. During another field visit, our research team was chatting (read “gossiping”) with the TUP branch manager after the Jum’a prayer. Suddenly he got distracted by the microphones announcement someone in a rickshaw was making. He got up and we went outside the office. The rickshaw was coming closer to the office. The announcement was about someone losing a cow and a request to anyone with information on this to get in touch. It turned out, the husband of a TUP member sold the cow and was trying to stage a story that it was lost. When I asked the branch manager what caught his attention, he said, “I thought I heard the name of one of my beneficiaries”. While we were all relaxing on a weekend, the branch manager was working 24/7 (literally).

I have been lucky to see such ethos, “We need to do everything in our power so that the beneficiaries have successful enterprises,” of the program to continue as it went global (and I with it). But sometimes the staff on the ground must deal with more urgent matters of lives than livelihoods. On a visit to Pakistan, I got to hear the story of how the TUP program manager ran around all night for a beneficiary who was pregnant and in critical condition. By arranging transport, accompanying her to the hospital, collecting blood for the c-section, and assuring the facility management that he would manage all costs, he did not just perform his professional duty. He literally saved two lives. I shall always remember the names of my colleague, the mother, and the newborn. After giving birth to a boy, Amina (the beneficiary) asked Saifullah (my hero) to name the child, and he named the baby boy, “Abed.”

I know each story is an anecdote. We live in the world of numbers, key performance indicators, professionalism with transactional relationships, and dominance of process or compliance over outcomes. But as an individual, I try to find inspiration (if not purpose) from these memorable interactions. I am thankful to many people who made the program, starting with the rickshaw puller who took me to the right office.

Dr Munshi Sulaiman is the Director of Research and Evaluation, Save the Children International and Research Advisor at 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 first part here and the second part here.