Getting the ultra-poor on the “economy train”

BRAC group meeting

BRAC group meeting

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>>Authored by Yanira Garcia and Sabina Rogers of the Microcredit Summit Campaign

More than one-fifth of the world’s population lives on less than US$1.25 per day (the “extreme poor”), and most of those people live in rural areas. Due mostly to geographic constraints, it is difficult and costly to reach this population with financial and social services. Having poor infrastructure and few tools, they are stuck in a perpetual cycle of poverty.

This is a problem just begging for a solution. How about six financial inclusion strategies — our “six pathways” — that show promise in ending extreme poverty? Specifically, how about BRAC’s Graduation Approach? In 2002, BRAC set out to help the ultra-poor living on less than 80 cents a day to move up one level of poverty and to develop an approach that could tackle the geography obstacle. (Read Shameran Abed’s blog post to learn how BRAC developed Graduation Approach.)

Exciting results from impact assessments

In June, Science magazine published the results of six randomized controlled trial (RCT) impact assessments of BRAC’s Graduation Approach. The RCTs were conducted in Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, India, Pakistan, and Peru among 7000 households and provided the following complementary approaches:

  • Productive assets
  • Training and regular coaching and household visits
  • Access to savings and health services
  • Consumption support

At a half-day event in June at the World Bank, “Creating Sustainable Livelihoods for the Poorest,” the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), and J-PAL disclosed results from these six RCTs.

The RCTs showed that the Graduation Approach is a cost-effective, clear pathway out of poverty. Specifically, attendees learned that it can help drive a sustainable transition to self-employment and ultimately have large lasting impacts on the standard of living of the ultra-poor. “There will be growth in the economy,” stated Esther Duflo, “and the ultra-poor are not on the [economy] ‘train’ and would never get on the train [without help]…The Graduation Approach would push them onto the train.” (Dr. Duflo is co-director of J-Pal and professor of economics at MIT.)

Eligible households were identified through a participatory wealth ranking process as well as through household visits. On average, participant households had higher incomes, increased savings, greater food security, and improved health and happiness. These effects were consistent across multiple contexts and implementing partners.

Additional outcomes from the study include the following:

  • Daily consumption was not negatively affected over time in the selected sites after the program had ended. The authors suggest increased consumption is a result of increasing self-employment activity.
  • Household members were able to afford two meals per day more often.
  • Households continued to increase their productive assets (most in the form of livestock) as well as their savings after the program had ended, with the exception of Honduras. (Participating households in Honduras suffered an unexpected illness that killed all of the chickens, causing the study to be incomplete.)
  • In Bangladesh, where women were targeted, land ownership increased by 38 percent.

The Graduation Approach had the largest impact on ultra-poor households in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and India. Researchers suggest that income diversification may have been a leading factor. In addition, cost-benefit calculations confirm that long-run benefits for the ultra-poor outweigh the graduation program’s overall cost.

Policy lessons for scale-up and replication

The RCTs also provide us with important policy lessons for scale-up:

  • For the Graduation Approach to have a lasting impact on ending extreme poverty, the support and action of governments and policymakers is essential.
  • It is possible to make sustainable improvements in the economic status of the poor with a relatively short-term intervention.
  • The positive results to date indicate that this approach can have a profound impact on improving the lives of the world’s ultra-poor.

Scale-up of the Graduation Approach is underway and will reach thousands of households in the coming years. Mariana Escobar, deputy director general for the Department for Social Prosperity in Colombia, spoke about Colombia’s pilot that started two years ago.

In Colombia, the Graduation Approach has helped repair the lives of the victims of the internal conflict and victims of sexual violence. Ms. Escobar explained that these results demonstrate to policymakers and governments that the extreme poor can make good economic decisions when they are given the right tools.

Edgar Leiva (Secretary of Technical Planning, Directory of Public Policies for Paraguay), Hugo Zertuche Guerrero (Director General of Geostatistical Information of PROSPERA in Mexico), Camilla Holmeno (Senior Economist with the World Bank in Ethiopia), and Fiona Howell (Senior Social Assistance Policy Advisor with the National Team For the Acceleration of Poverty Reduction in Indonesia) shared their respective country’s perspective on the Graduation Approach. On a scale of low to high, policymakers were asked to answer the questions below.

Q: How high was the impact evidence to decide to start a program in your respective country?

A: All of the policymakers answered “high.”

Q: How influential was visiting the site and seeing it in person to starting a program?

A: All of the policymakers answered “high.” Edgar Leiva (Paraguay) explained that his government started a pilot program two days after visiting Colombia’s pilot program.

Q: What was each country’s biggest challenge in implementing the program?

A:

  • Camilla Holmeno (Ethiopia): both cost and complexity.
  • Edgar Leiva (Paraguay): maintaining the positive attitude of workers in the program, which helps create a sort of magic and is so important to the success of the program.
  • Hugo Zertuche (Mexico): budget constraints due to recent decrease in oil prices as well as cross-program competition (and a perception that Zertuche’s program was poaching resources from other programs).
  • Fiona Howell (Indonesia): existing structures and system and coordination among the Ministries.

Q: What is the number one research question you would like to know the answer to?

A:

  • Camilla Holmeno (Ethiopia): test different types of packages with varying levels of transfer across Ethiopia.
  • Edgar Leiva (Paraguay): how closely tied the Graduation Approach is to the psychology of people.
  • Fiona Howell (Indonesia): how we can integrate the urbanized poor into the economic system.

Additional questions for future research were posed in the closing section of the event:

  • Which components of the Graduation Approach drive results? Through this study, CGAP and Ford Foundation learned that household visits allotted for 30 percent of the cost of the program. Are household visits necessary?
  • How do the impacts of the Graduation Approach evolve over a longer time span?

Watch the event recording

Related reading

From Microcredit to What?! by Sam Daley-Harris

April is the Month of Microfinance. http://monthofmicrofinance.org/

April is the Month of Microfinance. http://monthofmicrofinance.org/

Lea en español *** Lisez en français


Reposted with permission


>>Authored by Sam Daley-Harris, founder and former director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign. He is currently running the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation.

When the American Economic Journal recently published a group of independent studies suggesting that tiny loans to the poor usually don’t raise incomes, it left me scratching my head (although this response to those studies did ring true). As the first director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, I’ve had the privilege of observing anti-poverty fighters like Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus and BRAC founder Fazle Abed for decades. They, and others like them, never said, “We’re giving millions of microloans a year, we’re done!” Instead, they kept asking this question: “What more do our clients need to move themselves and their families out of poverty.” That question, the effectiveness of their responses to it, and the scale of their institutions have helped their country, Bangladesh, be among the poorest countries in the world most likely to achieve all of the Millennium Development Goals on time.

I first met Muhammad Yunus in 1987. By then Grameen Bank had already worked with its clients to develop the bank’s “16 Decisions,” pledges the clients made that included: 1) we shall not live in dilapidated houses, we shall repair our houses and work towards constructing new houses, 2) we shall grow vegetables all the year round, eat plenty of them and sell the surplus, 3) we shall plan to keep our families small. We shall minimize our expenditures. We shall look after our health, 4) we shall educate our children, 5) we shall build and use pit-latrines, and 6) we shall drink water from tube wells. If it is not available, we shall boil water or use alum.

To be sure, banks like Citi and Barclay’s never had a pit latrine policy with their clients, but this poverty-fighting microfinance institution (MFI) did.

It would take weeks of blogging to cover BRAC’s beyond-the-micro-loan initiatives. But, just as an example, BRAC’s ultra-poor program has been replicated around the world and its schools for children who never entered school or dropped out at an early age are a global model.

Grameen Phone ladies

Grameen Phone ladies

Grameen Phone and Grameen Shakti (a renewable energy company) are giants in Bangladesh and their work with the poor are examples of a microfinance institution continuing to ask what more can be done to improve the well-being its clients.

This eye-popping creativity coming out of microfinance has fascinated me for decades and has taken an entirely different direction with the work of Marshall Saunders, founder of Citizen’s Climate Lobby. In the early 1990s, Saunders worked with Rotary to raise $700,000 for FINCA, teamed with Grameen Foundation and their five-year strategy to help its partners add five million new clients, and then rolled up his sleeves and started Grameen del la Frontera, a microfinance institution in the state of Sonora, Mexico. But along the way, Saunders also got involved as a citizen advocate with the anti-poverty lobby group RESULTS.

Saunders’ view of the world was shaped, in part, by this early encounter with RESULTS. He joined me for a radio interview I was doing on the NPR station in San Diego. During the interview I mentioned that RESULTS had successfully lobbied Congress for $200 million for microcredit.

“At first I thought ‘that’s not right,’” Saunders recalled. “I had busted my butt for three years to raise nearly $700,000 through Rotary, and RESULTS had raised $200 million in their lobbying….it didn’t seem to be realistic, the $200 million. I did make a mental note of it however.”

Saunders continued his work with RESULTS and made a serious commitment to Grameen de la Frontera. He had read about climate change and realized that sea level rise would affect some of his clients.

“It occurred to me that I was trying to get 5,000 more borrowers in Mexico,” Saunders said, “and that Bangladesh might lose millions due to sea level rise. I felt I had to get to the bottom of this. I went to see “An Inconvenient Truth” and went back about a week later…. Then I read that Al Gore was going to train 1,000 people. I said “holy socks, of course that’s what I want to do.”

He joined about 250 others in Nashville, TN for one of the trainings and returned to San Diego to lead the slide show dozens of times. Early on he realized that 98 percent of the information focused on the problem of climate change and that just 2 percent focused on what people could do about it. In addition, many of the actions centered on using more energy efficient light bulbs but didn’t really get at the big picture, public policy.

This microfinance promoter, hunger activist and newly minted climate educator was now reading the newspaper every morning and read that Congress had just approved $18 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

“I’d gotten people to change 18 light bulbs yesterday,” he thought, “and that same day Congress approved $18 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. This is never going to work.”

In 2007 Saunders asked me to coach him in starting Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL). Several months later he led his first presentation with 29 people in the room. He hoped that at least four would agree to become the first chapter of CCL, but all 29 said yes. In 2014, CCL volunteers in the US and Canada had 2,253 letters to the editor published (up from 36 in 2010), had 291 op-eds published (up from 20 in 2010), and had 1,086 meetings with members of Congress, Parliament, or their staff (up from 106 in 2010). Doing something to protect microfinance clients in Bangladesh from the effects of climate change was his first impetus.

When the American Economic Journal recently published a group of independent studies suggesting that tiny loans to the poor usually don’t raise incomes it left me scratching my head. While CCL is truly a unique case, I still wonder why the researchers keep looking at just one intervention when the practitioners know it takes more and why they keep looking at the wrong institutions.


Sam Daley-Harris is the author of Reclaiming Our Democracy (www.reclaimingourdemocracy.org). He founded the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS in 1980 (www.results.org), founded the Microcredit Summit Campaign in 1995 (www.microcreditsummit.org), founded what would grow to become Truelift in 2010 (www.truelift.com), and founded the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation in 2012 (www.citizenempowermentandtransformation.org). Portions of this blog are taken from Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break between People and Government © Copyright 2013 by Sam Daley-Harris. Published by Camino Books, Inc., Philadelphia, PA. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.