Over the past few decades, a third of the global population has been lifted out of poverty. Yet, at the end of 2019, nearly half of the world’s poorest people were living in extreme poverty so severe and persistent that traditional interventions and market-led initiatives were unable to reach them, what we refer to as ultra-poverty. Ultra-poverty goes beyond the monetary definitions we are all familiar with – living on less than $1.90 a day. The ultra-poor are often isolated, cut off from society, and lack resources or skills to feed or educate their children, much less pursue a sustainable livelihood. They are trapped, unable to escape their situation, or even imagine a different future. And when calamity strikes, whether it’s a pandemic, natural disaster, or man-made crisis, these numbers spike astronomically higher. Without an approach tailored to the poorest, we will not be able to eradicate poverty.
In 2002, BRAC created the Graduation approach, a multifaceted intervention proven to break the poverty trap. Through training in life skills, finance, and business skills, along with consumption stipends, an asset transfer, and regular coaching and monitoring, the program addresses participants’ multidimensional needs within the local context. In Bangladesh, BRAC has helped more than two million households lift themselves from extreme poverty, and an additional 3.1 million families through replication by NGOs. But a systems-level approach with governments at the forefront is required to scale globally. Governments have billions of dollars allocated to poverty programs already, but many are not equipped to integrate Graduation into their systems. With Audacious investment, BRAC will work with governments to adopt and scale-up Graduation programs in countries with the greatest potential for impact and scale — lifting 21 million people out of ultra-poverty by 2026 — and setting millions more on the same path.
Graduation participants are led through a two-year program with sequenced steps: 1) Meeting basic needs, such as providing cash and/or food support; 2) Income generation by providing an asset such as livestock or seed capital; 3) Financial support through access to savings groups and financial literacy training; and 4) Social empowerment, by gathering participants in social and mentoring groups where they gain essential life skills, develop social capital, and confidence. To drive systems change, BRAC will engage with governments of countries with the greatest potential for impact and scale to integrate the Graduation approach into existing programming. BRAC’s intervention will consist of program design, training, and implementation support for the governments and local partners. In parallel, they will generate informative learning through research and engage a vibrant community of global stakeholders to help shape the dialogue and influence the adoption and scaling of Graduation in target geographies and beyond.
Developed by BRAC in and for the Global South, the Graduation approach has lifted millions out of extreme poverty and is the first scalable method proven to break the poverty trap. Evidence shows that Graduation interventions, typically 18-36 months, are changing the course of people’s lives in the long term. Multiple studies demonstrate continued upward mobility for households years after “graduating”, citing an increase in income, savings, consumption, hours of productive work, school attendance, and confidence in their ability to build a better life. Recent pilot programs in Kenya and the Philippines are a powerful proof of concept for BRAC’s ability to scale through government integration and partnership.
Shameran is Senior Director of Microfinance and Ultra-Poor Graduation programs at BRAC. He leads the organization’s work in financial inclusion and ultra-poverty globally and chairs the board of BRAC Bank’s mobile financial services subsidiary, bKash, one of the world’s largest mobile money providers. He serves on the boards of the BRAC UK, IPDC Finance and the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV).
Lindsay Coates is the Managing Director of BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative. Lindsay leads BRAC’s advocacy agenda to leave no one behind using effective, multidimensional approaches to change the lives of the most marginalized people. She is also responsible for its learning agenda and technical assistance activities worldwide in the 10+ countries where BRAC is currently implementing or assisting with Graduation programs.
BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiatives have already lifted millions out of poverty, but to reach millions more, a systems-level change is needed with governments at the lead. Share this bold idea that will supercharge the fight against extreme poverty.