Catalyzing Change: Graduation and the Sustainable Development Goals
By Rasha Natour, Advocacy Senior Manager, UPGI
With only ten years left to accomplish the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global community must come together to achieve our 2030 vision by committing to holistic investments, policies, and systems that ensure the most marginalized populations are not left behind.
The challenge in achieving such ambitious goals was recently amplified as COVID-19 threatens to unravel a decade of progress in human development and force 70 million more people into extreme poverty. The impact of the pandemic demonstrates how fragile progress toward poverty eradication is without holistic policy and systems change that address all SDGs and how existing inequalities can be further compounded by a crisis. It also shows us that a major threat to one SDG is a threat to all SDGs.
That said, the opposite is fortunately true: major progress towards one SDG has the potential to address multiple SDGs, but only if we design interventions strategically, holistically, and intentionally to sit at the intersection of various sectors. As the global community continues to prioritize COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, we need to ensure that programs, policies, and systems are designed to be built back better — to better serve the multidimensional needs of the extreme poor and to promote progress across the interconnected SDGs.
As 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, BRAC realized early on that sustainable impact can only be accomplished through holistic interventions that meet the multidimensional needs of poor communities.
This is actually how the Graduation approach was born: We realized that cash assistance was not enough to break the poverty trap for people living in extreme poverty. And we believed that a more comprehensive, multi-faceted set of interventions that recognized the human dignity and self-worth of the world’s poorest people and their ability to improve their standard of living through the provision of proper training, support, and resources could be the solution. More than two decades after BRAC pioneered the Graduation approach, it has proven to be one of the few interventions that helps people escape extreme poverty for the long-term and presents unbelievable potential for achieving multiple SDGs if scaled at-large. Based on BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation program in Bangladesh, 93 percent of participants experienced sustained benefits seven years after the program ended, including a 37 percent increase in earnings, a nine percent increase in consumption, a ninefold increase in savings rate, and a twofold increase in household assets and access to land for livelihoods 
Robust evidence shows that the impact of the Graduation approach contributes to multiple SDGs, including SDG 1 of no poverty, SDG 2 of zero hunger, SDG 3 on good health and well-being, SDG 5 on gender equality, SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth, SDG 10 on reduced inequalities, and SDG 13 on climate action.
With eradicating poverty being the centerpiece of BRAC’s overall mission, and more specifically the reason the Graduation approach came into existence, SDG 1 serves as the overarching connection to our work. With over 95% of program participants in Bangladesh achieving socioeconomic resilience and sustainable livelihoods, the impacts and successes we see tied to this Goal could not be more clear.
Food security, both for the individual participant and their family, is a key benchmark used to determine success at the end of all Graduation programs. Through better knowledge on nutrition and boost in savings and business diversification, the approach contributes to an increase in food consumption and helps promote healthy lifestyles, connecting directly to SDG 2, zero hunger.
A core component of UPGI’s Graduation approach is the inclusion of a dedicated coach or mentor, who not only tracks and monitors progress, but also provides vital lessons on life-skills, savings, business management, and livelihood training. These coaches also help create connections to health services/insurance, ensure participants build up multiple streams of revenue to build resilience against unexpected shocks, and increases participant’s confidence. These unique relationships with program staff ensure participants have the access and skills needed to promote good health and well-being (SDG 3), strong gender equality and empowerment in the household (SDG 5 & 10), and better work and economic growth (SDG 8). In certain programs, like in the PROFIT Financial Graduation pilot in Kenya, and in many parts of Bangladesh, program design included activities to mitigate the growing effects of climate change, connecting to SDG 13 (climate action).
Whether impact is measured through the SDGs or at the household level, the value of and need to address the multidimensional, interconnected needs of those living in poverty is clear. By promoting the scaling and adoption of the Graduation approach and other holistic models and integrating them into policies and national social protection mechanisms, we can catalyze progress towards the SDGs and ensure this progress translates to sustainable, long-term impact in the lives of individuals and communities who need it most urgently. BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative is committed to increasing the reach and impact of the Graduation approach in order to improve the quality of life of the extreme poor around the world through effective scaling and adoption. We invite all partners and stakeholders to join us in our personal commitment and vision of ending extreme poverty as well as the fulfillment of all SDGs.
 BRACUPGI. 2020. Impact and Reach of BRAC’s Graduation Approach.