UPG & Me: 20 Years of the Graduation Approach | Reflections from Yolande Wright

I moved to Bangladesh in 2004 to work for the UK government’s aid program—the Department for International Development (DFID) at the time—as a Livelihoods and Climate Adviser. One of my responsibilities was to provide livelihood advisory support to what was at the time a relatively small pilot program—CFPR.

My first visit to the program was eye-opening. This was something completely different from the traditional microfinance approaches we’d seen previously from BRAC and other NGOs. For this program, staff had been specially selected and trained not to look for families that might be “safe bets” for microfinance but for the poorest households, living literally and figuratively on the fringes of society. Predominantly female-headed households, these were households headed by women who felt they “had nothing but were nothing” (a quote I attribute to Imran Matin).

What did “extreme poverty” mean?

Some of these women lived in shacks beside larger compounds of relatives; others in graveyards or other communal spaces where they were less likely to be evicted. Most had been abandoned or divorced and had almost no regular income, sometimes working just for food. Some, shockingly, had to give up their children as they simply couldn’t afford to feed them. I remember one woman’s tragic story—that she had sent her daughter to work in the city and was assured by the “go-between” that she’d be safe and looked after, but had never heard from her child again.

I joined some research work, visiting families prior to the interventions, and listened as women described what they had to eat in their home. How rice with a little garlic or chilli was their main meal, and the cooking water with a little rice in it would do for breakfast. How eggs were a luxury afforded only every few weeks. How the last time they ate meat was when they were invited to a wedding. After hearing stories of such low levels of consumption it seemed almost impossible to me how these women and their children were surviving.

The support BRAC provided—addressing multiple aspects of poverty

What the BRAC teams did to support these households was almost miraculous. It was a process of up to two years of intense support, anchored around giving the women an income-generating asset such as 5 or 6 goats, a cow with a calf, or another small business. Each had been calculated to bring in an income that would help to raise the household out of extreme poverty—but sometimes the business might take a few months to start generating income, so additional income support was provided in the form of regular cash payments, alongside coaching, peer support, access to savings groups, legal aid, and much more.

The impact

So when we met women a year or so into the support, there was an incredible difference across a range of outcomes. Everyone had a small income-generating activity that they were hugely proud of. But also their confidence, their outlook, their optimism, and their sheer pride in their accomplishments was evident. I still remember one woman talking to me about how she no longer needed support from BRAC and wanted to help other women who had been in her situation. And the evidence backed up her own testimony—the independent evaluation started documenting increasing numbers of people “graduating” out of extreme poverty and sustaining that situation.

A culture of continuous learning and improvement

The level of commitment that BRAC staff showed was a standout feature for me. They had the “growth mindset” in abundance, always trying to learn and understand what was working and what wasn’t. How effectively did the 10 “graduation criteria” demonstrate sustained improvements? What was missing from the support given?

For example, when the nutritional impact was disappointing, there was a major discussion about shifting from all cash grants to a portion being provided in the form of nutritious lentils. Of course there is often a debate about “cash” or “in-kind” support, but for me the main lesson from this was the staff’s unrelenting commitment to maximizing the benefit for every single household involved. And how best to relieve “mental load,” which Mullainathan and Shafir discuss so well in their book “Scarcity,” which affects people living in extreme poverty. 

The importance of independent and rigorous evaluation

Of course, over the years, the program’s independent evaluation has come back demonstrating the remarkable achievements of the program—not just in immediate “graduation” levels, but also in sustained uplift of living standards.

I was delighted to be able to accompany three senior BRAC staff members to London in late 2006 to meet with the then minister, Hilary Benn, to pitch for what was at the time the largest ever grant to an NGO—a £75 million program to expand CFPR. Of course, the incredible team, armed with great evidence, succeeded in persuading officials and ministers alike of the potential of the program. Funding was approved, and the program went from strength to strength at an unprecedented scale.

Final reflection

I visited the program many times over the next few years, as I remained in Bangladesh until 2008 and then returned again from 2010 to 2012, by which time the UK government had a strategic partnership with BRAC across many programming areas. But CFPR in particular remains special to me. I always try to judge the programs I work on from the perspective of whether I myself would like to be enrolled in or involved if I were on the “receiving end” of the program. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the UPG program in BRAC was one such program.

Yolande Wright is the global director for child poverty, climate, and urban at Save the Children International.

“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, the fifth part here, the sixth part here, the seventh part here and eighth part here.