Let’s begin with the good news: The international community has taken unprecedented measures to respond to the humanitarian crises triggered by COVID-19.
By Lindsay Coates
This piece was originally published here in NextBillion. It has been reposted below.
Since March 2020, 212 countries and territories have enacted over 1,100 social protection measures to mitigate harm from the pandemic for the most vulnerable people. Most governments recognize the urgency of an effective response and have taken proportionate fiscal measures, now estimated to total almost $12 trillion worldwide.
However, even these massive efforts may come up short. With the number of people suffering acute hunger set to double to 265 million people by year’s end, and confirmed COVID-19 cases now exceeding 40 million, the scale of current responses is still not enough. And though the political will and finances to fund social safety nets exist at a global level, individual low- and middle-income countries face resource constraints. What’s more, most of these recent social protection programs are reactive and short-term, and current international development assistance is insufficient. Many programs do not reach those most in need of support, nor do they address the long-term needs of people in extreme poverty.
What we need now is not a disconnected series of COVID-19 response measures, but instead comprehensive, universal social protection systems. Governments must invest in a robust emergency response, but approaches must be adaptable and inclusive – and they must prepare the most vulnerable populations for future economic, health or environmental shocks. Below, we’ll discuss how the Graduation approach to poverty alleviation can play a role in helping these communities and their broader economies recover from the pandemic.
Improving targeting of people in extreme poverty through the Graduation approach
People in the most extreme states of poverty are both the most in need of social services and among the hardest groups to reach. Many low-income populations in the Global South are employed in the informal economy – including around 86% of workers in Africa and 68% in Asia. During COVID-19, governments have struggled to provide assistance to poor households without permanent addresses or national IDs.
Low-quality data on national poverty in many low-income countries makes identifying and targeting extremely poor people with government programs even more challenging. International Growth Centre research on social assistance programs in 123 countries found that even before the chaos of the pandemic struck, only 15% of the total population of low-income countries was protected by at least one social assistance program. And these programs do not target the poorest people: Only 21% of the poorest quintile within low-income countries are covered by social assistance at all.
For the first time since 1998, global poverty rates are rising. With almost 700 million people in extreme poverty worldwide and up to 150 million more predicted to fall back into extreme poverty by the end of 2021, it is urgent that governments adapt their social protection systems to target the most economically vulnerable populations. The Graduation approach, pioneered by BRAC in Bangladesh in 2002, is a viable pathway to improve these systems. Graduation is a sequenced set of interventions that addresses the needs of people in extreme poverty holistically by supporting participants with a productive asset transfer, skills training, consumption support, coaching and linkages to government services. By specifically targeting people in extreme poverty with a multi-step process tailored to local data, needs and capacity, Graduation helps bring previously unreachable populations into government safety nets.
The explicit focus of Graduation on the poorest segment of a country’s population and its emphasis on localized, adaptive targeting makes it possible for governments to reach more people in dire need. This targeting process can involve the combined use of national registries (depending on data quality), proxy means testing and participatory community wealth ranking, with targeted verification surveys to minimize errors.
By leveraging data governments already have and combining it with self-identification, community participation and survey verification, the Graduation approach makes it possible to find those in extreme poverty. It is then possible to connect these extremely poor households to government services, improving the targeting of existing social protection programs. By collecting data on vulnerable populations through Graduation programming, governments can strengthen their emergency responses as well. For instance, in Bihar, India, the state government’s Satat Jeevikoparjan Yojana Graduation program, supported by J-PAL South Asia, provided data on extremely poor households which has allowed the government to reach 39,000 people with phone surveys and cash transfers during the pandemic.
For an inclusive recovery from COVID-19, governments will need to identify and reach the most vulnerable – or we risk leaving millions more behind. Integrating the Graduation approach into existing social protection systems facilitates this effort, and uses delivery of emergency aid to build toward longer-term solutions. But this is only half the battle. To truly build back better, governments must also help people in extreme poverty prepare themselves for severe shocks before they happen.
Building resilient livelihoods during COVID-19: A case study from the Philippines
This pandemic has made the need to help the most vulnerable build resilient, sustainable, long-term livelihoods painfully clear. Market closures and lockdowns have brought much of the economic activity low-income households rely on for survival to a jarring halt. Shutdowns have led to lost income on a shocking scale, with nearly half of the 3.3 billion workers worldwide at risk of losing their livelihoods. In the third quarter of 2020 alone, the International Labour Organization projects a 12.1% loss in global working hours – the equivalent of 345 million full-time jobs.
This loss of livelihoods – combined with social safety nets which often exclude the poorest people – has sent millions to the brink of starvation. The UN World Food Programme has warned that nearly 265 million people are at risk of facing severe food shortages and starvation by the end of the year, almost twice the number of people suffering from food insecurity before the pandemic, because of income and remittance losses. Economic inclusion for extremely poor people which builds shock-resistant livelihoods and resilience is more than a matter of finances – it is a matter of survival.
The Graduation approach includes several unique mechanisms which prepare participants to better weather crises on all scales, from personal disasters to global catastrophes. We can see how Graduation has increased resilience through the case study of how the Philippines Department of Labor and Employment’s Graduation program, in partnership with the Asian Development Bank and with technical assistance from BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative, has adapted and supported participants during COVID-19.
Crucially, Graduation strengthens extremely poor households’ economic resilience by providing training on asset diversification. Rather than relying on low-wage informal labor, participants are guided through the process of setting up multiple streams of income from diverse agricultural and commercial activities. When one income source fails, they have others to fall back on. As of July 2020, 76% of participants in the Philippines were able to continue earning an income even during lockdown through multiple means, including agricultural labor, selling fruits and vegetables, and producing and selling charcoal.
In addition to helping participants develop varied income streams, Graduation helps them create a buffer against shocks by increasing savings. Graduation coaches link them to local financial service providers and offer financial literacy training, encouraging saving and long-term planning. During COVID-19 lockdowns in the Philippines, 75% of participants used their savings to support their households, while only 20% took out loans. (For comparison purposes, at the start of the program, only 29% of participants reported having savings.)
Self-sufficiency in income and savings ensures that people in extreme poverty can provide for themselves to some extent, even during a crisis like COVID-19. Graduation also increases the effectiveness of existing social assistance programs by connecting previously excluded households to government services. In the Philippines, 96% of Graduation pilot participants received cash assistance from the national government. Graduation coaches are serving as an important linkage between participants and their local governments. If participants receive aid in the form of financial support from the government, the coaches record and track this information in order to build on the saving practices taught throughout the program. On average, cash assistance programs in lower-middle income countries reach less than 70% of the poorest quintile of the population, making this level of coverage particularly encouraging.
The path to a resilient recovery
The government-led Graduation program in the Philippines demonstrates the impact of correctly identifying people in severe need, connecting them to social protection systems, and helping them build shock-resistant livelihoods. The approach does more than improve access to emergency aid and provide for basic health and nutritional needs. It empowers participants to escape the poverty trap and become agents of change in their households and communities.
To mitigate economic disasters of this magnitude and prevent them from harming millions of the world’s most vulnerable people, governments must strengthen existing social protection systems. Even the most generous programs are missing the people who need help the most. As a result, hundreds of millions of people globally are being left behind, and those that receive support often only get it after disaster has struck. Policymakers and the development community need to design better-targeted poverty eradication programs with a long-term focus that enable marginalized groups to become more resilient and self-sufficient. The Graduation approach provides a path to do that.
Lindsay Coates is Managing Director at BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative.
Explore how governments can use Graduation approaches to fight extreme poverty
In conjunction with End Poverty Day, BRAC and J-PAL hosted a discussion featuring panelists from BRAC, the United Nations Development Program, the Institute of Peruvian Studies, and Nobel-winning economist Abhijit Banerjee of J-PAL.
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, BRAC Founder, passed away in December 2019. Here, Abed’s friends and admirers reflect on his life and legacy.
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the beloved founder of BRAC, passed away on December 20, 2019. An icon of international development and pivotal figure in Bangladesh, Sir Fazle pioneered innovations in the sector that changed the course of a country and reverberated around the globe. His belief in the dignity and value of every human being, especially the poorest, has defined the ethos of the organization since he founded it.
Born in 1936, in the Sylhet region of British India, now Bangladesh, Sir Fazle grew up with significant privilege. After studying accounting in London, he went to work as an executive at Shell Oil, where he quickly rose to head its finance division. He would later say his experience at Shell taught him how to run large operations effectively and efficiently.
In the early 1970s, a devastating cyclone and the Bangladesh Liberation War ravaged his home country, dramatically altering the course of his life. Sir Fazle left his job and founded a small relief effort. After the war was over, he returned to a newly-sovereign Bangladesh. He founded BRAC to provide support for the 10 million refugees who had sheltered abroad during the war.
From the earliest days of BRAC to the global organization we know today, Sir Fazle was renowned for his famously dogged work ethic, keen eye for detail, and data-driven approach. Cited by Bill Clinton, Bill and Melinda Gates, the editors of The Economist, and many others for his extraordinary influence on global development, Sir Fazle avoided self-promotion, believing that BRAC’s work should speak for itself.
The organization he created and led for most of his life had historic impact, especially in his native Bangladesh, helping that country rise from the ranks of one of the poorest nations on earth to a lower-middle-income country and a model for successful development. Today, his remarkable legacy persists in the hundreds of millions of people around the world whose lives he bettered.
On my dear friend Abed
“Abed was one of the foremost leaders of thought as well as action of our time… An astonishing combination of clear-headed thinking and sure-footed execution made Abed the great leader that he was. We have had very few like him in the history of the world.”
Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics
He was a great gift to humanity
“Sir Fazle Abed’s life was a great gift to humanity. His nearly 50 years of visionary leadership at BRAC transformed millions of lives in Bangladesh and beyond, and changed the way the world thinks about development. Driven by an unwavering belief in the inherent dignity of all people, he empowered those in extreme poverty to build better futures for themselves and their families… His legacy will live on in all the people whose lives are better, healthier and more secure because of his remarkable service.”
Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States and Founder and Chair, Clinton Foundation
We will forever draw inspiration from his work
“In 1972, after Bangladesh’s war of liberation had left many homeless, Fazle Abed left his job as a London oil executive and returned to his home country with £16,000 in his pocket — and the ambitious goal of building 10,400 houses. He ended up raising enough money to build 16,000 houses for some of the poorest people in Bangladesh and still had enough left over to start his next project. That’s who Sir Fazle was as a humanitarian, and that’s what he helped us learn about development work: How to build a big, efficient organization, while never forgetting who you were doing it for. We were saddened to hear of his passing and will forever draw inspiration from his work, as will the rest of the world, which he left so much better than he found.”
Bill and Melinda Gates, Co-Chairs, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
His life is a lesson for us
“The scale and impact of what he has done, and yet the utter humility with which he has done everything, is a lesson for every single one of us.”
Jim Yong Kim, Former President, World Bank
One of the heroes of modern times
“I can think of few people who have done so much for humanity as Abed. He was a friend and someone I deeply admired and learned from: While US aid efforts in Afghanistan often flopped, his succeeded. Reflecting his humility, no one called him Sir Fazle. He was simply Abed.”
Nicholas Kristof, New York Times Columnist
We will never forget the example he set
“Over the course of three decades, under Sir Fazle’s inspiring leadership, the humanitarian organization he founded, BRAC, has become one of the world’s leading development organizations. From its humble beginnings in Bangladesh – the country he loved so well – to its expansion to 10 countries across Asia and Africa, BRAC has stood as an inspiring example of how we can gather people together in common cause to improve the lives of the most vulnerable… All of us at UNICEF will miss his ideas and advice. We will never forget the example he set.”
Henrietta Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF
My deepest condolences
“The hundreds of millions of lives he transformed will remember him as the spark of hope, especially by those from the most vulnerable and poorest communities now enriched by new possibilities. ”
Dr. Charles Chen Yidan, Founder, Yidan Prize Foundation
The data reveals an 84 percent increase in the number of child marriages prevented in the first nine months of 2020
DHAKA, BANGLADESH — BRAC today released new data revealing the increased pressure on teenage girls in Bangladesh to submit to child marriage amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The data reveals the number of child marriages prevented by Polli Shomaj, the community-based women’s groups that are active in 54 out of 64 districts in Bangladesh. Among other activities, Polli Shomaj work to stop child marriages and other forms of violence, and help women access community and government resources. The data is released today, as the world celebrates International Day of the Girl.
The data reveals an 84 percent increase in the number of child marriages prevented in the first nine months of 2020, compared to the first nine months of 2019. In the third quarter of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic widespread, the number of child marriages prevented grew by 219 percent, compared to the third quarter of 2019. The increase in child marriages prevented grew by 571 percent from the first quarter of 2020 to the third quarter of 2020.
The quarterly comparisons are as follows:
|Months||Number of Child Marriages that Polli Shomaj Prevented in 2019||Number of Child Marriages that Polli Shomaj Prevented in 2020|
BRAC’s Community Empowerment Program reports that while 683 child marriages were prevented by Polli Shomaj, a total of 778 child marriages were still reported between January and September 22, 2020. In 2019, 371 were prevented by Polli Shomaj, and 460 were reported. This is a rise of 84 percent in prevented cases and 69 percent in reported ones.
The number of child marriages prevented is a key indicator, because it reflects awareness by Polli Shomaj of local incidents and trends. The women in Polli Shomaj are well connected in their communities and understand the pressures that girls and families are under.
“These numbers are of enormous concern. This is just a glimpse of the social disruption that COVID-19 has brought on. An immediate concerted effort on socioeconomic recovery by public, private, and social sectors is critical to prevent child marriage; otherwise, we will fall behind on the progress we have made so far on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Asif Saleh, Executive Director of BRAC Bangladesh.
Among the factors that Polli Shomaj cite as contributing to the growing attempts at child marriage are a range of social conditions enhanced by COVID-19. They include increasing job losses and poverty; growing food insecurity; the closing of schools, which reduces options for girls and increases the likelihood that they will not return to school; social distancing, which makes it easier to keep knowledge of child marriages from other members of the community; the reduced cost of a wedding, because large gatherings are not allowed; closed government offices, which makes it hard to check birth certificates; distraction of local government officials by the pandemic and efforts to reduce it; and the return of men who made money at overseas jobs. The range of these factors underscores the difficulty of combatting child marriage amid a pandemic.
According to the United Nations Population Fund’s recently released State of the World Population report, COVID-19 may exacerbate the already concerning numbers around early marriage, violence, and sex ratio at birth. Its recent projections estimate that COVID-19 will disrupt efforts to end child marriage, potentially resulting in an additional 13 million child marriages taking place between 2020 and 2030 that could otherwise have been averted.
Notes to the editor
BRAC is a global leader in developing and implementing cost-effective, evidence-based programs to assist the most marginalized people in extremely poor, conflict-prone, and post-disaster settings. These include initiatives in education, healthcare, microfinance, women and girls’ empowerment, agriculture, human and legal rights, and more. BRAC’s vision is a world free from all forms of exploitation and discrimination where everyone has the opportunity to realize their potential. In 2020, BRAC was named the number one NGO in the world by NGO Advisor for the fifth consecutive year. Founded in Bangladesh in 1972, BRAC currently operates in 11 countries in Asia and Africa, touching the lives of over 100 million people.
About BRAC USA
Based in New York, BRAC USA is the North American affiliate of BRAC. BRAC USA provides comprehensive support to BRAC around the world by raising awareness about its work to empower people living in poverty and mobilizing resources to support its programs. BRAC USA also works closely with its international counterparts to design and implement cost-effective and evidence-based poverty innovations worldwide. BRAC USA is an independent 501(c)(3) organization.
Discover Ritu’s story
After being married at a young age, Ritu had no source of income. She purchased a cow and sold milk at the local market, but her earnings were modest, and her family was trapped in a cycle of poverty. Now, as a client of BRAC Dairy, Ritu has a consistent place to sell her milk for a fair price, and she has grown her business into a thriving dairy farm with over 25 cattle.