Published on November 1, 2014
BRAC’s approach to poverty alleviation is based on a simple, and extremely effective, idea: that families experiencing the harshest forms of poverty are capable of lifting themselves out of those circumstances, for good. We saw this powerful idea come to life firsthand when we visited families in Bangladesh last fall who had participated in BRAC’s program.
This experience not only deepened our multi-year relationship with BRAC, but it helped us understand how to share what we had learned about the Graduation Approach with our friends and colleagues. We are gearing up for a big year in 2015 by renewing our commitment to the North American affiliate BRAC USA as well as the Collaborative to End Ultra Poverty.
A Learning Journey to Explore Extreme Poverty
We first learned about the Graduation Approach while on an Amplifier Strategies Learning Journey in India. We had a chance to travel to rural communities and learn from local organizations working to alleviate extreme poverty. A local microfinance institution, Bandhan, was one of the first organizations to take up BRAC’s proven methodology in India. It was the first time that any of the travelers from Erol or Amplifier had seen that level of poverty before. It was also the first time we had seen a solution that showed such promise for poverty reduction at a global scale. We knew we had to learn more about it.
In October, 2014 members of Erol Foundation traveled to Dhaka to visit BRAC headquarters and travel with BRAC program managers to both urban and rural program sites. Erol co-founder Julie Lépinard went with a select group of other current and potential donors on the Learning Journey, led by Amplifier Strategies. The trip focused on three areas of learning and exploration related to the Graduation Approach: women & families, food & livelihood security, and social inclusion.
Urban Poverty & Maternal Health Centers
To better understand ultra poverty and how it affects women and families, we met with BRAC staff working in the urban settlements around Dhaka. We learned about the tenuous land claims there and the programs BRAC has put in place to bring stability and safety to these families while they learn enterprises and begin to save up for the future. One program, a maternal health center on rented land within the settlement, had helped to reduce unhygienic home births from 86% to less than 20%. The program included health care as well as counseling and confidence-building exercises to help create a behavior change among women living in the area. Staff would discuss options for everything from birth control and spacing out pregnancies to the pervasive issue of child marriage and spousal abuse.
Rural Poverty & Weekly Home Visits
We also traveled to northern Bangladesh, where we learned about the insecurity and exclusion very poor families go through, and how living in rural communities intensifies their experience. Physically and socially isolated, women who head ultra poor families lack self-confidence and the ability to plan or envision a better future. BRAC’s weekly staff visits to ultra poor households were a crucial part of the program that clearly supported families in their pathway out of poverty.
Each time the Learning Journey group arrived in a new village to see the Graduation program participants, we saw the way the community acknowledged the program as a positive addition, or force for change, within the village. Most quite literally opened their arms and their doors to us when we arrived. After visiting homes where families were just starting out with the program, those who were part way through, and then meeting with others who had “graduated,” we could see a noticeable change in the demeanor of the women.
“You can tell every time you ask them about their life they get very emotional…because they remember about their past, their family and all their suffering, and you can tell that it’s quite recent for them,” said Julie Lépinard about her experience. “But then they have someone who believes in them, trains them, educates them and checks on them every week. This holistic approach gives them the hope they need to succeed, and they slowly start to form some dreams for their future.”
Opportunities to Engage
At the end of the week-long Learning Journey, we came away with a broader understanding of how the Graduation Approach worked on the ground, and how even the most extreme forms of poverty can be undone. All of us at Erol Foundation are interested in the potential for scaling of this much-needed solution. The World Bank and the United Nations agree that it is possible to end extreme poverty by 2030, but that kind of global shift will undoubtedly need the support and coordinated action of governments, organizations, and donors.
While on location with BRAC in Bangladesh, we learned that the organization has the operational capacity to put 80,000 families into the Graduation program each year. But this year, they are enrolling about half that. The main reason for this disparity, they said, was funding.
BRAC has big plans in the coming years to increase awareness and uptake of the Graduation Approach globally by working with funding partners and implementing organizations in the least developed countries. Erol will continue to follow the progress of this expansion, and we hope to engage additional partners to join us in the Collaborative to End Ultra Poverty as we continue to learn about where philanthropic investments can help alleviate poverty and catalyze positive change.