UPG & Me: 20 Years of the Graduation Approach | Remembering my first Domar days: Mehnaz Rabbani

In 2004 I joined BRAC Research and Evaluation Division as a Research Associate. A fresh graduate from the US, brimming with theories of Economics, I thought I knew it all. Little did I know that my real education was just about to start—when I was asked to spend a week at Domar, Nilphamari, on the very first week on the job to learn about the Ultra Poor Graduation Program (then called Targeting Ultra Poor, TUP for short).

Without any prior experience of travelling within Bangladesh alone on public transportation, I started on this epic journey with a backpack and a contact number I was supposed to call once I reached Domar. Back then research associates were not entitled to cars. So I had to travel by bus. The only instruction I got was to make sure I got on the express route. Dhaka to Rangpur was a smooth ride, and I already felt proud of myself for making it that far all alone. At the Rangpur bus station, I was bombarded with several bus helpers coaxing me to get on their bus for Nilphamari. I remember asking one of them if it was an express bus, and I think he had said yes. Once on the road, I quickly realized that this was definitely not the case, as it stopped every five minutes to board passengers. My dismay at the prospect of spending hours on the bus faded quickly as I observed the busy passengers on the bus, getting off at local markets and getting on from schools. Some had their produce with them. Some were going home for holiday in their best attires. Already I felt a tinge of excitement at being exposed to a new world within my own country. And true to my first instinct, my tenure as a researcher at BRAC was the most eye-opening experience of my life, shaping my career and my life from then on.

It was well past midnight when I finally reached Domar—a quiet and dark village town. When I called the number I was given, a young friendly anthropologist stationed at the research office received me. The research station was one of the few brick buildings at Domar. It was a tiny apartment with three small bedrooms, a mouldy bathroom, and a kitchen. It also had a small common space where the researchers convened for meals and conversations. We hardly ever had electricity. When I asked how many times a day they faced a power cut, our field colleagues laughed and replied, the question should be ‘’how many hours a day do you actually get electricity ’’.

This dark, stingy, and mouldy apartment, although scary at first, became my second home for the next few years. And the small group of young researchers working on this program became my teachers, comrades and friends for life.

The TUP program, still in its early stages, had a mighty ambition. The sceptic in me secretly grimaced at the idea of giving cows and goats to poor people and hoping that this would bring them out of poverty. The cows and goats, mind you, were not of the best quality either. We used to joke that TUP cows were the size of goats and the goats were the size of cats. In a remote and underdeveloped town like Domar, that was the best that money could buy. I went about exploring, and talking to TUP members, field officers, local leaders, and shop owners. My job was to understand what works to change the lives of the poor. Slowly I learned the tricks and techniques of fieldwork—how to approach respondents, how to make them feel comfortable to share their experiences with me, how to find out the right people to talk to, and how to blend in and screen out the truth from the myriad of stories we heard.

Domar TUP members at that time were predominantly widows, single mothers, and beggars. Most didn’t have more than a shack to live in and barely had a meal a day. As I spent more time with these women, trying to understand where they were coming from, what their daily lives were like, and what they aspired to be, one thing became very clear to me. The program changed the lives of these women, but not so much by giving them a cow or goat but primarily by boosting their confidence and aspirations—not only from owning a valuable asset but also from being heard and seen in their community. One member explained this phenomenon to me: ‘’Before when I saw the local chairman on the village road, I would run to him like a beggar and ask for help. He did not even stop to look at me, let alone listen to my problems. But now, I first go to his office and ask him if he has some time for me. Usually, he asks me to wait, and I wait patiently until he is free. When he can give me his full attention, I present my problems to him. He knows I am a TUP member, and he listens to me carefully. Now I am not scared of any problem, as I know I can get help to solve it.”

We measured numerous indicators of well-being in our several rounds of surveys to capture the impact of TUP on its members. But we were never fully able to capture the one true impact—the restoration of hope and a will to improve one’s life. This is what brings people out of poverty. This is what works.

Mehnaz Rabbani is the Head, Operations & Strategic Engagement and Partnership at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University.