Opinion: How governments can reach people in extreme poverty and build resilient livelihoods during COVID-19

Let’s begin with the good news: The international community has taken unprecedented measures to respond to the humanitarian crises triggered by COVID-19.

woman in Graduation program in Philippines works at her food stand

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.

Webinar: Driving systems change to end extreme poverty

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.

Video: BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative – Audacious announcement 2020

An Audacious plan to lift millions out of extreme poverty

Today, BRAC was named a 2020 winner of the Audacious Project. BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative will receive more than $60 million to scale our proven Graduation approach through governments and help 21 million people lift themselves out of extreme poverty.

BRAC receives $60 million for Audacious plans to lift 21 million people from extreme poverty

As a selected Audacious Project for 2020, BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative will work alongside governments to scale the Graduation approach and help 21 million more people to lift themselves from extreme poverty

Women in a Graduation program

NEW YORK, NEW YORK — Today, BRAC was announced as one of this year’s Audacious Project grantees. The Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative, an initiative of BRAC, will receive more than $60 million to apply toward its goal of helping another 21 million people lift themselves from extreme poverty by 2026.

BRAC is the founder and largest scaled implementer of the Ultra-Poor Graduation approach, having reached more than 2 million households in Bangladesh and developed and implemented adaptations of the approach in 14 countries across a range of different contexts.

“The need to combat extreme poverty and drive systemic change has never been more urgent,” said Shameran Abed, Senior Director of BRAC’s Microfinance and Ultra-Poor Graduation programs.

The announcement comes at a critical time when Graduation is needed more than ever. In the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed a light on, and exacerbated, pre-existing, systemic inequalities that permeate societies around the world. The impact of COVID-19 and economic lockdowns to prevent further spread of the virus have created a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions. The pandemic threatens to unravel decades of progress toward poverty alleviation. By the end of 2020, more than 70 million people could slip into extreme poverty.

“We must act swiftly and design programs that meet the increasing and evolving needs of those living in extreme poverty — programs that are comprehensive, adaptive, and immediate but also support long-term needs — to build resilience and support sustainable recovery,” said Abed.

Our Audacious Project will support efforts to scale and implement BRAC’s Graduation approach, a multifaceted intervention that helps the poorest escape extreme poverty and continue to improve their lives years after the program ends.

Through training in life skills, finance, and business skills, along with consumption stipends, an asset transfer, and regular coaching and monitoring, the Graduation approach addresses participants’ complex needs and helps them create sustainable livelihoods to lift themselves out of extreme poverty.

But to scale globally, a systems-level approach with governments at the forefront is required.

“Governments have billions of dollars allocated to poverty programs already, but many are not reaching the most marginalized, nor are they fully equipped to integrate Graduation into their systems,” said Abed.

BRAC will leverage $5.8 billion dollars in existing government and donor funding and channel those toward well-executed, government-led Graduation programs in countries in Africa and Asia 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.

“The level of effort, programming, resources, and tenacity required to eradicate extreme poverty vastly exceeds the capabilities of a single organization or the Audacious investment,” said Lindsay Coates, Managing Director of BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative. “To truly eliminate poverty in all its forms, BRAC urges governments, multilateral institutions, donors, NGOs, and policymakers to work together more effectively and commit significantly more resources.

“At BRAC, we believe in standing with those most affected by pervasive inequality and most at risk of being left behind. This is an act of justice — not of charity.

 

Notes to the editor

About BRAC

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.

 

Media contact

BRAC USA

Sarah Allen
[email protected]

Hope for a renewed fashion industry as we remember Rana Plaza during COVID-19

Seven years on from Rana Plaza, Bangladesh’s garment sector faces unprecedented challenges that will fiercely test its resilience. Can COVID-19 serve as a catalyst for a more responsible fashion industry?

BY LINDA PATENTAS

 

Global brands and retailers have canceled over $3 billion worth of apparel orders in Bangladesh since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The canceled orders comprise 980 million pieces, enough for three articles of clothing for each person in the United States.

These canceled orders spell devastation for Bangladesh’s most significant sector, which accounts for 84% of the country’s total exports. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association estimates that broken promises from fashion partners will affect over four million garment workers, the majority of whom are women living in poverty.

 

 

A humanitarian crisis with a public health dimension

For millions of garment factory workers and 10 million day laborers across Bangladesh who rely on daily wages to feed their families, the COVID-19 shutdown has already caused acute poverty and food insecurity. According to BRAC’s executive director Asif Saleh, “For Bangladesh, COVID-19 is a humanitarian crisis with a public health dimension.”

In early April, several hundred workers filled the streets protesting overdue salary payments, some alleging they had not been paid since February.

Loss of income and food insecurity can lead to conflict. BRAC’s human rights and legal services offices across the country have seen an increase in gender-based violence cases, including women who lost their jobs in the garment sector.

When garment factories closed in late March, Rakeya* filed a case against her husband, who physically abused her at home. The daughter of a landless farmer, Rakeya had moved from a rural community to Dhaka, shortly after giving birth to her first child, to find a job at a garment factory.

After COVID-19 took her job, Rakeya refused to give up the small portion of land to her husband that she had purchased with her savings. Her husband beat her and drove her out of the house, keeping their young daughter. BRAC helped Rakeya to file a case with the police and reunite her with her daughter.

BRAC’s director of human rights and legal services and social compliance, Jenefa Jabbar, says that stories like Rakeya’s are not uncommon. As both men and women lose jobs and income, domestic violence cases are on the rise. BRAC is seeing an increase in incidents of rape, suicide, child marriage, and domestic violence.

“When millions of people quickly fall back into poverty, it can result in a rapid increase in human rights abuses,” said Jenefa. “This is damaging to any society.” Indeed, one BRAC program received nearly 700 reports of violence across three weeks in late March and early April, a number of which were directly linked to the economic effects of COVID-19.

 

 

Broken promises from the global fashion industry

As governments around the world have imposed lockdowns, several major brands and retailers sent letters to Bangladeshi manufacturers calling for the immediate cancellation of orders, totaling more than $3 billion worth of goods. After an outcry from activists, some brands have promised to pay for their orders, while others have pledged to defer payments to an undefined time in the future or asked factory owners for discounts.

Bangladeshi manufacturers are also responsible for $1.96 billion worth of fabrics that go into manufacturing clothes. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association estimates that Bangladesh will lose nearly $6 billion this fiscal year as a result of order cancellations.

As we commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, where 1,134 garment workers lost their lives and more than 2,500 were severely injured, the fashion industry’s promise to be more collaborative and accountable is paramount.

This crisis demands responsible supply chains that support the millions of workers who are the backbone of the fashion industry and a commitment to inclusive partnerships that advance the dignity, safety, and opportunity of garment sector employees, especially women.

 

 

Supporting garment workers during COVID-19

It has always been BRAC’s ethos to support the most vulnerable communities. Its global response to COVID-19 has reached more than 60 million people worldwide with public health awareness activities across 11 countries.

In Bangladesh, nearly 200,000 families have received cash support of about $18, which will provide emergency relief for two weeks. BRAC has also distributed more than a million hygiene products and spread public health information about COVID-19 to 24.5 million people.

Many of these efforts have targeted geographic areas with high concentrations of apparel factories, such as Gazipur, Savar, and Tongi. According to BRAC University’s Mapped in Bangladesh, an online tool to map exporting garment factories, there are nearly 2,500 factories in Gazipur and Savar, collectively employing 3.5 million workers. Since 2017, BRAC has operated one-stop service centers for garment workers in these neighbourhoods, providing more than 125,000 people with healthcare, skills training and job placement, legal aid, microfinance, health insurance, and more.

To minimize direct contact and overcome barriers to financial inclusion, BRAC is partnering with the mobile money provider bKash to expedite new account registration and is looking to work with factory owners to digitize payments to garment workers.

BRAC has also set up hand washing stations outside of its service centers and at entrances to slum communities where garment workers live and continues to offer health, legal aid, and mental health counselling to community members through call centers.

In Bangladesh, the rate of reported COVID-19 cases is increasing at an alarming rate. Though the majority of cases remain in Dhaka, a lack of testing capacity makes it difficult to understand the full picture. As the country rapidly approaches 5,000 reported cases, BRAC is committed to standing with communities affected by COVID-19.

 

Hope for a renewed garment industry

In the short-term, BRAC will continue to provide immediate relief for garment workers affected by the crisis. However, the long-term implications for the global fashion industry require attention and action.

The impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the significant power imbalances between industry stakeholders across the supply chain. BRAC is eager to lead broader conversations on rebuilding a responsible industry.

Since Rana Plaza, key stakeholders in Bangladesh have been working tirelessly to ensure that the “Made in Bangladesh” brand represents a new way of manufacturing ready-made garments, where safe, decent work opportunities are the norm.

BRAC teams are exploring approaches that support vulnerable workers who have been left behind, from reskilling programmes to interventions that combat projected spikes in trafficking.

Our late founder, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, said, “BRAC has always believed that change is human-made. At the heart of everything we do is the conviction that everyone can be actors in history.”

Even as the impacts of COVID-19 destabilize the sector, can we build a renewed industry that distributes value beyond shareholders and supports the economic and social rights of workers?

The fashion industry and garment sector must unite during these challenging times so that the suffering experienced after Rana Plaza is never felt again.

*Name changed to preserve anonymity.

 

Linda Patentas is Program Manager for Cities, Supply Chains and Migration at BRAC USA. Support communities where garment sector workers live by donating to BRAC’s emergency relief efforts for COVID-19.

Let there be light: Bringing light and opportunity to rural Tanzania

This Earth Day, we focus on the impact projects like WE SOLVE have had on both the planet and people living in poverty.

A woman with a solar light in Tanzania
BY CHRIS LYNE

 

In this age of lockdowns and social distancing, it is easy to focus on the terrible impact COVID-19 is having on people. Development organizations and practitioners the world over are grappling with the challenge of creating opportunities and providing services for vulnerable communities without being able to leave their own home, let alone conduct field visits. However, in spite of this, it is vital that we focus on the progress we have made pre-COVID-19 and will continue to make in the future.

Today is Earth Day, an international celebration created to drive transformative change for people and the planet. A unique project in rural Tanzania has been doing just that.

That project is WE SOLVE, which stands for Women Entrepreneurship through the Solar Value chain for Economic development in Tanzania. WE SOLVE has been tackling the twin problems of limited employment and economic opportunities for women in rural Tanzania as well as limited access to clean energy.

It involves a unique global partnership between BRAC, Solar Sister, a nonprofit that trains and supports women to deliver clean energy to rural African communities, and Signify, a global company offering high quality, reliable, and safe lighting products.

The project has a simple yet effective methodology: Solar Sister recruits women entrepreneurs to sell clean energy products to their own and neighboring communities. Signify is, among other providers, ensuring that Solar Sister entrepreneurs have high-quality, energy-efficient, reliable, and safe lighting to sell. They then use BRAC’s extensive microfinance network of over 200,000 clients as a customer base to sell the solar products. BRAC also supports clients with access to credit via a solar loan product to make the purchase more affordable if they do not have available cash.

The project, which started in 2018, has been funded for 4 years by Danida, Denmark’s development cooperation, and the Signify Foundation. The pilot phase of the project targeted the Arusha region, which is home to Tanzania’s nomadic Maasai and other communities. Many people here are ‘off grid’ and face life without light as soon as the sun sets, meaning that children cannot play or study and families are often dependent on fuel-powered resources to do their daily chores.

At its halfway point, the project has achieved remarkable success. BRAC recently conducted an annual survey report to explore its impact on the incomes and life chances of households in rural Arusha, comparing the baseline survey at the start of 2019 with data collected at the end of the year. The results are extremely encouraging.

Households spent on average 68% less on their energy per year because they used renewable solar lighting products instead of kerosene lamps, which are both expensive to run ($140 per year on average) and have damaging health impacts. The number of households reporting health issues due to the kerosene lamps more than halved with only 16% reporting relevant health problems.

The use of solar lights also had other benefits, with 64% of parents reporting improvements in children’s academic performance, mostly due to solar lights making light available for longer so children could complete their homework at night.

While gathering data for the annual survey, we spoke in detail to a number of clients to learn more about their stories. Elizabeth was one such person. She is a banana trader from Tengeru, a small market-town located in the foothills of Mount Meru. She took out a loan to purchase a solar lamp from a Solar Sister entrepreneur in early 2019.

“Since my family started living in this house in 1998, we had never had electricity. We had been using various types of kerosene lamps to take care of our lighting needs. I am a widow with four children; two are grown up, and two are still in school. The solar light has been very useful to my children, who are still going to school. Before, they used a kerosene lamp for studying at night.

“My son was recently blessed with a baby. Since we still did not have electricity in our home, I gifted my daughter-in-law the light to help with the baby, especially at night. My whole family has really benefited from this light. Even now, although we have managed to get electricity, the light is still very useful to use as a torch outside, or when the power goes out, and also in our bathroom outside that has no light.”

Elizabeth has seen the many advantages of access to affordable clean energy: the women entrepreneurs selling the products are earning an income, and the planet is benefitting from an increase in the use of renewable energy products.

On this day of action for mother Earth, it’s more vital than ever that we celebrate our success and look forward to more progress for communities like Tengeru in the future.

 

Chris Lyne is Advocacy and Communications Manager at BRAC UK.

A farmer’s journey to save his family from hunger

Before the second civil war erupted in Liberia, Roland had a thriving farm. But over years of conflict, he lost everything. Today, Roland is charting a pathway to a better life for his family.

By Sarah Allen

 

Before the Second Liberian Civil War erupted, Roland and his family lived happily in Upper Buchanan, Liberia. A proud owner of more than two acres of land, Roland had a thriving chicken farm and variety of crops that helped feed his family and generate an income to support his wife and children.

But then war broke out. Soldiers raided his farm. They stole his chickens – his livelihood. Eventually, he was forced to abandon the farm and flee to town for his family’s safety.

After the war, Roland struggled to earn a living in town. He moved back to his land in Upper Buchanan with his wife, where he could farm. So that his children could stay in school, he made the difficult decision to leave them in the care of extended family.

Read more: Discover other stories from BRAC farmers in Liberia.

Leaving his family was hard, but without his farm, he could not provide for them. He knew it was the right thing to do. But when his family’s safety was again jeopardized, Roland knew he had to return to town — even if it meant sacrificing his farm and his livelihood.

In town, he did not have a job and struggled to earn a living. When a neighbor told Roland about BRAC earlier this year, he decided to attend a three-day training on chicken-rearing.

“I love raising chickens and wanted to start again,” Roland told us.

Roland's chickens

Chicken feed from BRAC's feed mill in Liberia

Roland’s family is one of 15,000 in Liberia that BRAC equips with the training and resources to improve their food security and boost their incomes. The program supports local farmers through training in innovative farming techniques like climate-smart agriculture, connecting farmers with quality farming inputs, and educating families and communities on nutrition and home gardening.

Read more: Learn about BRAC’s agriculture programs.

Although BRAC has equipped Roland and many others with tools and skills needed to farm, there are many challenges. Roland told us that the most difficult challenge is feeding his growing chickens. Local chicken feed is expensive, and the chickens eat it quickly. Through his training, Roland learned to make his own chicken feed by mixing ingredients like ground nuts and ground fish bones.

Roland and his granddaughter

Roland’s goal is to invest in his business selling roosters and eggs and expand his farm, but his number one priority is to save money so that his children can continue their education. He knows education is a pathway to a better life for his children and baby granddaughter.

“I want them to have everything they dream. With an education, life would not be hard for them.”

Roland told us that he still dreams of his old farm. One day, he hopes to move back to the countryside, where there is more space to expand his chicken farm and room to grow vegetables and crops as he once did. Equipped with new skills and tools, he is already making progress towards achieving that dream.

 

Sarah Allen is Communications Officer at BRAC USA.

West African authors elevate girls’ voices through storytelling

A new set of books inspired by real stories from girls in West Africa aims to help girls navigate the unique challenges they face. Hear from the authors who brought their stories to life.

BY SARAH ALLEN

 

This summer, BRAC published a new collection of life skills books designed for girl participants in its Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents (ELA) program in West Africa. The program provides safe spaces in girls’ communities where they can come together to sing, dance, play games, and socialize. The ELA clubs are led by peer mentors, who facilitate training on life skills, sexual and reproductive health, financial literacy, and livelihood opportunities.

The new life skills books complement the ELA curriculum, navigating topics like forced marriage, early pregnancy, domestic violence, and other key issues that many girls in the program face. We interviewed two Sierra Leonean authors who helped write the books, Mohamed Sheriff and Allieu Kamara, to learn more about the writing process and how their own experiences growing up in the region informed their writing. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.

 

How has your country or community impacted your writing?

Allieu: I became interested in writing following the end of the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, when I became a journalist. We undertook many research and investigative projects. One of the glaring challenges after the war was that the education system was shattered, which in turn brought about a rapid decline of literary interest. When the Canadian Organization for Development through Education partnered with PEN Sierra Leone to undertake a project called Reading Sierra Leone, it gave me greater opportunity to continue writing about local issues I observed.

 

What events or other factors in your life have influenced you most as a writer?

Mohamed: My mother, who was a brilliant folk storyteller, influenced me the most. Her storytelling sessions were among my most enjoyable childhood experiences, and through them, I realized the immense power of stories to delight through both spoken and written word. I can say she was my greatest inspiration as a writer and, more specifically, the reason why I write and publish children’s books.

The suspense thrillers I read as a teenager also influenced me markedly as a writer. The gripping suspense, the twists and turns, and the seamless writing style that kept me turning the pages were key factors that enhanced my love for both reading and the art of telling stories.

Another factor that greatly influenced me as a writer was the 11-year civil war in my country, which caused a lot of death and destruction. There was so much to tell and so much to write about that one simply couldn’t not write.

 

What was your favorite book as a teenager or young adult? Why?

Mohamed: I read and enjoyed so many books that I can’t single out one as my favorite. I loved the folk stories from West Africa and Africa as a whole, but I greatly enjoyed books from other places – like the Arabian Night TalesAlice in WonderlandCinderellaJack and the Beanstalk, and stories from Greek Mythology.

Allieu: ‘So Long A Letter’ by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ was my favourite book growing up. It deals with problems that many African women face.

 

The new life skills books cover challenging topics like child marriage, early pregnancy, and gender-based violence. How did you navigate these important but difficult topics as an author? 

Mohamed: It was a bit of a challenge – sometimes you want to tell the story graphically, directly, bluntly; at other times, you want to be subtle, less direct, euphemistic, ironic. Even reviewers and editors are not always in agreement about which approach is best, so I follow my instinct.

There are no hard-and-fast formulas or one-size-fits-all approaches. Storytelling is a dynamic business, each story has its own feel, temper, and peculiarities. These determine how you navigate each story.

Allieu: During the research and brainstorming sessions that led to the publication of the life skills books, the project consultant ran a workshop with the authors on ways to deal with these types of sensitive issues in our writing. The main lesson from that workshop was that the dynamics of each story should guide the author about how to address an issue.

 

What kind of research did you do before writing these books?

Mohamed: Before writing the books, we visited communities where BRAC runs its ELA clubs to talk to their participants, adolescent girls, many of whom have dropped out of school or experienced abuse or another violation of their human rights. They shared their experiences with us as well as their hopes, aspirations, and views about life in general.

Allieu: In another workshop before writing the books, we were trained on how to navigate interviews with stakeholders and conducted focus group discussions with girls in the program, facilitators, and community members. It was interesting listening to the girls, as each person we talked to had different stories about similar challenges.

 

Which of the issues covered in the books are most important to you or near to your heart? Why?

Mohamed: All the issues dealt with in the books are near to my heart because they are interrelated, in the sense that they are all human rights abuses related to gender. These include early and forced marriage, lack of access to education, sexual abuse, gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, lack of decision-making power in the home, and more. These are issues I have addressed through my writing for a long time.

Allieu: Personally, all the issues in the BRAC life skills books are important, because they all directly deal with the problems girls are facing in our country. The content of the books actually addressed the topics that came up in our research and provided responses to those problems. I believe if girls read these books, they can be in a better position to tackle the challenges they face.

Why were you interested in working on a project with BRAC?

Mohamed: The project is specifically targeting a readership that few if any people think about – adolescent girls who have dropped out of school. Many of the books that they may have the ability to read and comprehend are children’s books with content that may not match their experiences. Books that may interest them are written with more difficult vocabulary and a style that is beyond their current ability to digest. The BRAC life skills book project gave us the opportunity to produce books that provided interesting content targeted to the reading comprehension level of these girls.

 

What impact do you hope the life skills books will have? What do you hope readers of these books will learn or gain?

Mohamed: If a constructive reading program is organized for adolescent girls that incorporates these books, the girls could benefit in a number of significant ways. They would be exposed to positive new approaches to dealing with the gender-related human rights challenges they encounter regularly.

There are two key lessons that I want to emphasize: First, suffering in silence will not resolve their challenges, therefore, girls must speak out. Secondly, adolescent girls should never give up on their dreams and goals in life. If they persevere, they will succeed.

Perhaps more importantly, after reading all 11 books, I hope they will have adopted the habit of reading for pleasure and enlightenment. Since many of these girls may never return to formal education, adopting the habit of reading for pleasure could be one of the most valuable life skills tools they can take away from the entire BRAC program. A lifelong habit of reading is an effective means of informal self-education that could increase their communication and comprehension skills and broaden their horizons.

Allieu: Most if not all of the characters in the life skills books who experience gender-based issues reflect the experiences of girls we spoke to in BRAC’s clubs. I hope that they will believe that all is not lost, and that the stories they read will inspire them to adapt to and navigate these challenges.

 

About the authors

Mohamed Sheriff

Born and raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Mohamed Sheriff is an author, writing coach, publisher, producer, and director. He writes children’s books, short stories, novellas, and dramas for radio, television, and stage, and also produces and directs documentary videos, short films, and radio, television, and stage productions.

Mohamed’s books include Maryama Must GoTibujang Must Not ComeShasha Shooshoo and the Rat, and Secret Fear. He has contributed to plays including Not You Too and Free Juice For All. Mohamed has won several local and international awards for his writings, including three BBC awards for Just Me and Mama (1999), Spots of a Leopard (2006) and A Voice in Hell (1999) as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Prize for Excellence in Literature for Secret Fear (1999). He contributed to the following life skills books: Let Me Be, You Think You Know, Broken Promise, Change of Plan, For Her Sake, and To Do and To Dare.

Allieu S. Kamara

Allieu Kamara is an author who specializes in writing children’s books. He studied at Fourah Bay College at the University of Sierra Leone and brings a background in journalism. He enthusiastically promotes literature, reading, and creative writing for children in schools and communities across Sierra Leone.

Allieu’s works include, Is it Magic?The Waterside Stone, and Thief Thief! He contributed to the following life skills books: You Think You Know, Dreaming Again, and Change of Plan.

 

Sarah Allen is Communications Officer at BRAC USA. 

Opinion: Answering Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh with skills development, artisan training

Innovation is often associated with the newest technology or the latest app. Often, however, it can be seen in the fresh application of a tried-and-true strategy in a new context.

Women at an artisan training center in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

By Sadiaa Haque and Samira Syed

 

This piece was originally published here in NextBillion. It has been reposted below.

Innovation is often associated with the newest technology or the latest app. Often, however, it can be seen in the fresh application of a tried-and-true strategy in a new context. In Cox’s Bazar, a small town on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh, extreme poverty, a fraught socio-cultural landscape and the Rohingya refugee humanitarian crisis have exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and placed an unprecedented burden on women in the host communities. BRAC is working to help them bounce back through artisanal skills training and new employment opportunities.

Cox’s Bazar is one of Bangladesh’s poorest and most vulnerable areas, with 17 percent of people living below the extreme poverty line, compared to the national average of 12.9 percent. The more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh has placed an unprecedented burden on Bangladeshis living in poverty in the surrounding host communities, particularly within Ukhiya and Teknaf, where most refugees have settled. Host communities cite livelihoods and access to employment as their most pressing need, with 51 percent of locals reporting that neither they nor someone in their immediate family are able to make a living in the local economy.

A recent BBC issue of What Matters? detailed concerns among the host community in Cox’s Bazar that Rohingya are offering their services at a fraction of what it would cost to employ a local Bangladeshi. The average wage for day labor has decreased by 55 percent, particularly in agriculture, salt fields and earthen work, according to a BRAC report on the impact of Rohingya refugees on host communities.

Meanwhile, the price of almost all food items has increased up to 120 percent, according to rapid assessments conducted by BRAC. With a fall in daily labor wages and a rise in the prices of basic staples, people living in poverty are resorting to desperate measures to cope, including the selling of small assets and livestock, taking on increased debt and risky migration.

The burden has been greatest for women.

Conservative cultural norms complicate the social landscape – one where women are often married by their family at a young age, unable to complete schooling, denied resources, and forced to live through intimate partner violence and polygamy.

It is not any easier for women in the refugee camps. Focus group discussions by the United Nations Population Fund have revealed similar issues, as well as new ones, such as husbands marrying other women to access more rations. It is imperative to invest in women, in both camps and host communities, by supporting livelihoods that are sustainable and empowering, to prevent further adoption of negative coping strategies.

In extending its flagship enterprise to host communities in Cox’s Bazar, BRAC is investing in exactly that. Created by BRAC in the 1970s to develop livelihoods for rural women, Aarong harnesses the skills of 65,000 women artisans to market handmade products at its 21 outlets across Bangladesh. Now the country’s largest lifestyle retail brand, Aarong forecasts sales and production to ensure that its artisans receive regular orders and have a consistent source of income throughout the year.

Aarong operates across Bangladesh in two ways. The first is through the Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF), which uses a hub-and-spoke model with a main production center linked to many small sub-centers. AAF’s artisans have access to BRAC’s holistic development interventions, such as microfinance, maternal healthcare, hygiene awareness, subsidized latrines, human rights awareness and legal aid, daycare facilities and more. Aarong also works with over 800 independent producers, independent master-craftspeople and micro-entrepreneurs, who take direct orders from Aarong and are audited on 39 social compliance metrics.

This year, Aarong opened a production center in Ukhiya, near the refugee camps and settlements. It is the first of its kind in the region. With support from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, women receive on-the-job training from experienced trainers for six months and leave the program equipped with skills in machine-sewing, hand embroidery, block printing and screen printing. They are given a monthly stipend to support them throughout the training period.

Program participants are carefully selected to ensure that only women living in the most vulnerable situations are included. Most of the participants were forced into early marriage, are widowed, or abandoned by their husbands. Many never completed school beyond the fifth grade. Others had no previous source of income and those that did, relied on agriculture on a very small scale. A few worked in garments factories in Chittagong, more than five hours from Ukhiya.

Today, the project includes one main center and five sub-centers operating in the host communities, as well as six training centers in the camps. In total, almost 400 women are now being trained, with a goal of 600 by the end of the year.

The project seeks to reduce women’s unpaid care work, advance women’s agency, transform discriminatory gender norms and practices, encourage higher incomes, and promote better access to and control over resources. Artisans will receive holistic development support from BRAC, including financial linkages, health insurance, regular health check-ups and retirement benefits.

Breaking down employment barriers for women, particularly those living in vulnerable settings, is critical to driving future economic prosperity. Enterprises need to ensure progressive work environments that encourage women, and women need to be equipped with the skills to get those jobs and keep them. On World Refugee Day, we stand with refugees and those affected by refugee crises by declaring our commitment to sustainable, long-term support that enables everyone to realize their potential.

 

Sadia Haque is Deputy Manager, Reporting and Documentation, Emergency Preparedness and Response at BRAC International.

Samira Syad is Senior Manager, Executive Director’s Office at BRAC International.

“My children are my greatest joy”

Scholastica, a mother and Graduation participant in Kitui, Kenya, forges a better life for her family.

Scholastica and her family
By Sarah Allen

 

There was a time when Scholastica used to plead with her neighbors for a little salt to add to her family’s meals.

But, with ten children – four biological and six adopted from her community – the requests started to add up, and she felt ashamed. Eventually, she stopped asking.

But, like all mothers, Scholastica was determined to provide for her children.

“My children are my top priority,” she told us. “They are my greatest joy.”

Today, Scholastica participates in an Ultra-Poor Graduation pilot program in Kitui, Kenya, run by CARE International with technical support from BRAC.

Graduation programs use a holistic approach to poverty alleviation that targets the most disadvantaged subset of the extreme poor, who live on less than $1.90 per day. Through a comprehensive, time-bound, and sequenced set of interventions, women like Scholastica gain the skills and self-confidence to “graduate” from ultra-poverty into sustainable livelihoods.

Scholastica eats with her children

The Graduation approach creates the opportunity for women like Scholastica to develop their financial literacy, start budgeting and grow their savings, improve their family’s nutrition and health, learn how to start and sustain a business, and much more.

Dristy Shrestha, a member of the Graduation team at BRAC USA, frequently travels to help governments and nonprofits design and run their own Graduation-style programs. Dristy first met Scholastica at the Gai market in Kitui, Kenya, where Scholastica runs a small grocery business.

“When I first met Scholastica, six months into her Graduation program, she was very shy and soft spoken, but she wore a big smile,” Dristy said. “When the field staff introduced us, they mentioned she was excelling in the program.”

After joining the program, Scholastica leveraged her aptitude for entrepreneurship and started a vegetable stand. She had noticed a lack of vegetable vendors in the area and, seeing a business opportunity, she chose to start a small grocery shop.

“I asked Scholastica if she had felt any changes in her life,” said Dristy.

“She told me that, while she had endured many hardships, what made her most sad was the feeling of helplessness at being unable to provide for her children. Before joining the Graduation program, her family could not afford to consistently eat one meal a day.

When we spoke, she was proud to be earning enough to feed her children well and send them to school.

Nearly a year into the two-year program, things have already improved for Scholastica.

With an expanding grocery business and a growing selection of livestock, Scholastica is now able to ensure that none of her children go to bed hungry. She is also putting away savings through her Village Savings and Loan Association, and has joined a group that conducts community service projects around town.

She says her children motivated her success.

As her grocery business begins to expand to more local markets, Scholastica and her children are increasingly better integrated in her community.

“It has been incredibly inspiring to see the changes in Scholastica — in her energy, in her self-confidence, and in the power in her voice,” said Dristy.

Today, she is making a living for herself, providing for her family, and lifting up her community.

Reflecting on her journey, Scholastica grinned and told us, “Now people ask me for salt.”

Scholastica is a member of the PROFIT Financial Graduation Program, funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Government of Kenya.

 

Sarah Allen is Communications Officer at BRAC USA.