Driving Systems Change to End Extreme Poverty: Event Recap

By Lindsay Coates, BRAC UPGI & John Floretta, J-PAL

How do we ensure people living in extreme poverty get their basic needs met? What are the biggest barriers to creating systems change through governments to end extreme poverty? What does innovation in poverty eradication look like post-COVID? These questions guided the joint BRAC UPGI and J-PAL high-level panel event held on October 20th. A diverse array of participants from multilaterals, academia, governments, and NGOs, came together to share insights and answer some of these tough questions with the hopes that the conversation would serve not only as a platform for knowledge sharing and mutual learning, but also as a catalyst for true systems change.

Panelists Carolina Trivelli (Institute of Peruvian Studies), Shameran Abed (BRAC), Achim Steiner (UNDP), and Abhijit Banerjee (J-PAL) (starting top left, clockwise)

While the shock and destruction of COVID-19 has set the world’s poverty eradication efforts back substantially, it has also exposed the major gaps and shortcomings of existing social protection systems. UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner addressed the staunch inadequacies of our current situation, citing the fact that over half the world’s population lacks social protection.

“Half the world’s population has no social protection whatsoever,” he said. “In many developing countries 80 to 90 percent of people work in the informal sector. Temporary basic income [as proposed by UNDP in a recent report] is in one sense an immediate measure to allow people to cope with a health crisis, but by identifying people in need, we can build more comprehensive SP systems.”

Participants and speakers called for a top down and bottom up approach when implementing evidence-based development interventions to eradicate extreme poverty. “It is very important we make the plea and guide the conversation to create a global fund for such emergencies,” Nobel Prize Laureate and J-PAL Director, Abhijit Banerjee stated. “This is a moment where you see countries repositioning their aid to be strategically useful. We need a new global conversation.”

Establishing a global emergency fund, committing more resources to combating poverty and climate change, closing the digital divide in rural settings, and building resilience of the world’s poorest people through economic inclusion programs, were some solutions panelists and participants proposed. Such solutions would strengthen existing systems and move the lever on extreme poverty, some argued, but they would require increased support from the international community, reallocation of resources, and close engagement with local communities and national governments.

A participant received life-skills training by her coach in the Graduation pilot in Liberia (BRAC 2020)

In order to garner increased support from the international community and national governments to strengthen existing social protection programs, there was a collective call for a narrative shift. “We need to change the narrative and the way we talk about the poorest people and meeting their needs,” said BRAC Microfinance and Ultra-Poor Graduation Senior Director Shameran Abed, “as they have the agency and the ability to improve their own lives.” Others expressed support for Abed’s call for greater awareness around extreme poverty, stating it needs to be reframed in a way that is less about dependence and more about the dignity and resilience of the world’s poorest people who are also disproportionately affected by the economic shock of the pandemic.

Evidence-based solutions for extreme poverty, such as BRAC’s Graduation approach, were cited as ways to strengthen existing systems and enable the world’s poorest people to better their lives and withstand major shocks like COVID-19 with the right resources and tools. Interventions grounded in rigorous research, like Graduation, help position governments, practitioners, and researchers to take actionable steps toward creating programs and systems that support long-lasting change.

“We need to ensure, now that governments have realized the need of these basic pathways [for the poor], for them to be able to survive in a crisis. I think governments today can now take advantage of some of the opportunities this crisis has presented [them with],” said Carolina Trivelli of the Institute of Peruvian Studies.

While governments can serve as agents of scale and sustainability, their ability to drive lasting systems change would greatly benefit from more effective collaboration from other global actors. By enhancing support within the global community, and strengthening relationships and increasing capacity at the local level, the world can build the poorest people’s resilience for future crises and move toward a more just transition post COVID-19.

Watch the entire recorded event on BRAC’s Youtube here.

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