UPG & Me: 20 Years of the Graduation Approach | Personal Reflections of Dr Tariq Omar Ali

The years, 2004 to 2006, when I worked as a researcher on BRAC’s newly-started Ultra Poor Graduation Program are the most valuable learning experience of my life. I was immersed in a workplace charged with curiosity, with a desire to try to know and understand the world. This culture of curiosity was, I think, grounded in a tenet of the graduation program in its early years: that solutions to extreme poverty required development practitioners to suspend deeply held assumptions and to think anew about the complex, multidimensional nature of poverty.

In what I now think of as true BRAC fashion, our curiosity sent us to the field. The field, for much of my two years, was in Domar, Nilphamari though I also spent considerable time in Netrokona, Madaripur, and Nachole. Domar, however, was a long-term base, where I and my colleagues in TUP researched and spent weeks at a time, living in a small two-bedroom apartment with a questionable bathroom, riding around villages on a rickshaw van, stopping to interview people or sitting under the shade or in a tea-shop to discuss our research. From my colleagues at Domar, I learnt the arts of looking and listening attentively, of paying attention to people and their surroundings, and of trying to see the world through the eyes of people very different from myself. My colleagues demonstrated to me every day and in many ways–with words, gestures, bodily comportment–how to approach the world with curiosity, humility, and empathy, not with readymade solutions and fixes.

Probably because I had a degree in history, of all subjects, I was assigned unusual research projects. My first assignment was to examine theft and poverty in villages around Domar. I spent three weeks wandering around villages, asking various people if anything had been stolen from them, how they attempted to secure their possessions if they thought the poor were particularly vulnerable to theft, what kind of people were thieves if they thought poverty was a cause of theft, did they think it was morally acceptable for a poor person to steal to survive etc. At first, I was too shy, too urban, and too awkward, to approach villagers, whether ultra-poor or elite and ask them about thefts and thieves. A colleague, Mamun bhai–now the director of a qualitative research organization–came to my assistance, and with his characteristic charm introduced me around villages, rephrasing my questions in ways that could actually be understood.

What does theft have to do with the graduation program, one may ask? First, the program was transferring assets to vulnerable poor women living in households without able-bodied men. BRAC, obviously, was concerned about the security of these assets. Second, the program was attempting to engage rural elite support for the uplift of the extreme poor. Could elites be interested in addressing extreme poverty in their locality if they thought it would improve the security of their property? I did not, of course, come up with this research project–it emerged out of the curiosity and creativity of TUP research.

I left BRAC in 2006 to do a PhD in history and have since gone on to teach, research and write about South Asian history. As a researcher and a teacher, I learnt more from my colleagues and bosses in the TUP research team and from the field at Domar than I have from classrooms or books.

Dr Tariq Omar Ali an Associate Professor, at Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown 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, the third part here and the fourth part here.