UPG & Me: 20 Years of the Graduation Approach | Personal Reflections of Dr Shaila Ahmed

BRAC is celebrating two decades of its flagship Ultra Poor Graduation (UPG) program this year. On this occasion, I reflect on how my close involvement with UPG as a fresh graduate has profoundly shaped my perception of poverty, enhanced my empathy for the poor, and stirred my passion for working to improve their livelihoods. After completing my undergraduate studies, I joined the UPG team—the program was called Targeting the Ultra Poor (TUP) at that time and was later changed to UPG. In this blog, I would like to share a few stories from my UPG fieldwork that influenced me the most. 

Once I was visiting the field to observe the selection verification process of the UPG member in the Madaripur district. On this trip, I met a bright little girl, 14 years old, in a village who was keen on our work and was accompanying us the whole time. She told me that she lived in the next village and was just visiting a relative’s house in this village. And she requested I take her to Dhaka so that she could continue her studies. Her family was very poor, and her mother, the only breadwinner, wanted to marry her off, which the poor girl didn’t want. But we couldn’t help her as the program was not operating in her village that year.

The next year, the UPG program started in her village, and I met her again. But I was shocked. In just a year, she transformed from a lively little girl into a single mother of a newborn. Her husband abandoned her swiftly as her mother couldn’t pay the promised dowry.

Now she was taking care of her child and her younger siblings and was also doing all household chores while her mother was working outside. This time, I got the opportunity to help her by selecting her as a UPG member with a pang of guilt, as we couldn’t help her when she needed it the most. If we could, she probably wouldn’t have to be a child bride or a poor single mother; instead, she could be a happy school-going teenager with dreams and hopes.

On another field visit in the Gopalganj district, I had to face local fundamentalists who did not want poor women to become UPG members as they would have to leave the house and go to market or for training. I felt they were afraid of poor women being empowered. Initially, I was fearful of meeting those people with religious conservative thoughts. I had to overcome my fears to help these women. Along with the Social Development Regional Manager, I managed to convince those people after hours of an argument. As a strategy, we also included them to become members of Gram Daridro Bimochon Committee (GDBC), put together by UPG to get local buy-in for the program participant. Later, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this particular GDBC became one of the best performing committees.

Talking about my experience with UPG would be incomplete if I didn’t talk about the hard work and dedication of the UPG field staff. In 2009, when Cyclone Sidr hit Southern Bangladesh, a colleague and I were in the Barguna district for work, and we got stuck. But it also gave me a chance to see how all the program staff worked 24/7 to reallocate UPG members from their homes to safety. Seeing their fearless work in helping the UPG members made me realize that UPG was an effective program not just because it was well-designed but also, perhaps more, because of the dedication and passion of its field staff. While returning to Dhaka from that visit, our ferry got stuck in the middle of the Padma river, and we had to spend the whole night in the car stuck on the ferry. Then I learned that earlier, a few UPG staff from the North managed to get an engine boat to cross the river so that they could join the effort of relocating of the UPG members and their livestock. They took the risk of traveling to a storm-stuck region to help even though it was not their area. Such was the sense of ownership of UPG field staff.

I also went to Haiti to participate in the exercise of adapting the UPG to better suit the Haitian culture and to oversee its rollout. What works in one country may not work in another. These international assignments broadened my understanding of applied economic development complexities and deepened my cultural competence.

Through UPG, I also met people like David Hulme and Martin Greely. Their commitment to improving the lives of the poor through their research inspired me deeply. While I was presenting a paper on the program in Kampala, Uganda, with David Hulme, not only did he enrich my understanding of development research but also planted a dream within me. Like Hulme and Greely, I wanted to dedicate my life to researching development solutions that worked. They convinced me to pursue higher studies in economics to become a high-impact researcher.

So I took a break for a few years to first take a Master’s in Public Health degree and then and then to complete my PhD in economics. I was so into UPG that I focused on a cash transfer program for my PhD. Working with UPG has shaped my interest in behavioural and experimental economics, particularly the dynamics of the ultra-poor population’s social networks. I believe my higher studies have helped develop a solid theoretical understanding and equipped me with the necessary tools to undertake advanced, applied development research. I feel my field experience combined with my academic training, would be invaluable in doing research that touches lives.

UPG has deeply impacted both my professional and personal life. Professionally, the compassion for the underserved people I developed through my experience with the program gave me the inspiration to continue working in the development sector. It also gave me the strength to take the long, often strenuous, journey of becoming an economist with a focus on development.  At a personal level, my UPG experience taught me patience and teamwork. It also helped in my self-discovery—that I have the resilience to take on new challenges and fight against the odds.

On the road “to be nobody but” myself, I have encountered twists and turns and some detours in my journey from program to researcher; it was unquestionably the hardest battle I have fought. However, the process was also invaluable for me because it has molded me into the person I am today. And I know that dedicating my life to research for good is my destiny.

Dr Shaila Ahmed is an Associate Research Fellow 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, the second part here, and the third part here.