How to Reach Millions Excluded from Expanding Global Marketplace

By Lindsay Coates, Managing Director for BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative

At this moment, the world’s biggest players in politics, business, and culture are convening for the final day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to shape global, regional, and industry agendas that will impact millions. This year’s meeting aims to give meaning to “stakeholder capitalism”, which is based on the belief that the purpose of a corporation is to benefit all of its stakeholders — customers, employees, partners, communities, and society as a whole. It is meant to engage the market in combating pressing issues such as climate change and extreme poverty while promoting equality, sustainability, resilience.

But if we truly want to better the lives of all stakeholders, we must be more inclusive, particularly of those who are not reached by the expanding global marketplace.

Over the past few decades, the expansion of the global marketplace has lifted a third of the global population out of poverty. That is a monumental achievement for human progress, one that is undoubtedly being celebrated at Davos.

Yet, we are also witness to an astounding failure that is largely being overlooked: Most of our efforts to lift people out of poverty have left behind those in the harshest forms of poverty.

Today, 394 million people — that’s the population of the US and Canada combined — experience material destitution and psychological despair so severe that traditional anti-poverty interventions fail to reach them. We’re talking about a subset of extreme poverty, people who tend to live on less than $1.90 a day, who we at BRAC refer to as the ultra-poor. Those who are ultra-poor live in the poverty trap: a self-reinforcing state of physical, material, and psychological deprivation seemingly immune to most interventions designed to boost people’s income and well-being.

Emily, Netekwa and Sopina manage a group livelihood of raising cattle in Samburu county, Kenya

At BRAC, we are committed to supporting individuals and families stuck in the poverty trap by working with them to build a path out of persistent uncertainty and destitution through our Graduation program. Graduation — an approach we invented in 2002 — is a comprehensive, multi-faceted intervention designed to meet the complex and interconnected needs of this hard-to-reach population and instill in them the belief that with a little assistance they can pull themselves out of poverty.

Breaking the cycle of extreme poverty requires a holistic approach. In addition to providing assets such as livestock, we coach program participants on livelihood, financial, and life skills; train them to make assets productive; mentor to instill confidence and hope; teach about basic health care; and more. Through a set of carefully sequenced steps, participants “graduate” from a state of severe destitution to a level where they can maintain sustainable livelihoods with dignity and continue on an upward trajectory after their involvement in the program ends.

Rebeka sits with her catering staff in one of the many slums that dot the capital of Dhaka, Bangladesh

And Graduation works. It’s a proven, researched set of interventions based on a deep understanding of the challenges faced by those living at this severe level of extreme poverty. Evidence shows that graduation interventions that take place for two years, are changing the course of people’s lives in the long term. What’s more, Graduation as a development intervention impacts more than extreme poverty, promoting women’s empowerment, health and education, as well as resilience among communities affected by climate change, conflict, and displacement. We are constantly learning and adapting our approach to meet the unique circumstances of different countries, communities, and cultural contexts and improve as we learn what works and what doesn’t.

Program participants in Bayan, Afghanistan during a life skills training

But we cannot do this alone. The level of effort, programming, resources, and tenacity required to eliminate extreme poverty vastly exceeds the capabilities of a single organization. We recognize the power of partnerships and coalitions — with country governments, like-minded organizations, and donors — and we operate with urgency and optimism. If we can expand how governments in low-income countries think about safety nets and social protection programs for extremely poor populations, integrating Graduation, millions more people will have their basic needs met.

It is time for the world’s biggest players in politics, business, and culture to see and act for all stakeholders, most urgently those who we have neglected for far too long. Country systems and global players must expand their definition of stakeholders beyond customers, employees, partners to include the nearly 400 million living in ultra poverty.

Breaking the cycle of extreme poverty by providing a pathway out of persistent uncertainty and destitution through our Graduation programs.

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