Lessons Learned: Responding to a Changing, Complex Poverty Context in Lesotho

By Julie Kedroske, Technical Advisor, BRAC UPGI

A core tenant of BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation approach, a multifaceted set of interventions that help people escape extreme poverty, is adaptation. Not only adaptation to different country contexts — having implemented in 6 countries where BRAC has global operations and provided technical assistance in 14 others across Asia and Africa — but a deeper level of adaptation within countries marked by complex poverty contexts and geographies. This is required in large countries like India where climates, cultures, and terrain vary widely across regions, however it is also necessary for small countries like Bangladesh and one of the smallest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa — Lesotho, a tiny mountain kingdom within South Africa.

Lesotho is unique in many ways, which presents its own set of challenges when creating a national program designed to reach people living in extreme poverty. Lesotho happens to be only one of three enclaved nations and the only independent state that lies entirely above 1,400 meters in elevation, making it home to the highest lowest point of any country in the world, creating unfriendly conditions for crops and cultivation. The country’s unique geographic makeup has significant economic and environmental ramifications. It has created a reliance on the South African economy, which accounts for 85 percent of all imported goods and a significant proportion of youth labor migration to the ever present mining industry.

To further complicate matters, the country is also extremely vulnerable to climatic conditions including droughts, floods, and snowstorms as a result of increasingly warmer conditions and reduced rainfall. Lesotho’s unique geography includes four agro-ecological zone (lowlands, foothills, mountains, and the Senqu river valley) characterized by their own vulnerabilities and hazards including limiting access to basic services and rapidly eroding productivity of land, so much so that only 13 percent of current land availability is suitable for agricultural production.

A typical, breathtaking landscape in Mohale’s Hoek district of Lesotho

The country is also host to one of the more complex poverty landscapes in the region with a combination of economic inequality, deprivation, and extreme vulnerability largely characterizing the conditions in which the Basotho (people of Lesotho) live. Lesotho is among the least developed countries with a Human Development Index of 0.497, ranking 160 out of 188 countries. Inequality in the country had reached dangerous levels early in the decade, yet organizations like the World Bank have found considerable progress in efforts to make it a more equal society over the last few years.

Poverty, HIV/AIDs, and tuberculosis (TB) are endemic in Lesotho with 57.1 percent of Basotho living below the national poverty line, 34 per cent below the food poverty line and an HIV prevalence rate estimated at 25 per cent — the second highest in the world. Coinfection has continued to plague communities with 70 percent of people living with TB testing positive for HIV in 2017. Children in particular have been gravely affected by these health crises with 110,000 orphaned due to HIV and AIDs as of 2018, creating a missing middle generation resulting in young people becoming caregivers for older generations.

In an effort to address the myriad of challenges faced by the Basotho population, the Ministry of Social Development (MoSD), with support from UNICEF Lesotho and the World Bank, have strengthened their presence at the community level to support the delivery of high-impact interventions. This includes BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative’s support to the design of an integrated Community Development Model (CDM), which aims to ‘graduate’ households into sustainable livelihoods by combining social protection, specifically the unconditional social cash transfer — Child Grants Programme — targeting households with orphaned and vulnerable children, with livelihoods, financial inclusion, social empowerment, and mentorship.

A participant waits for the program assessment team in Mafeteng, Lesotho

BRAC’s UPGI employs a rigorous and participatory approach to assessing the multidimensional vulnerabilities people living in extreme poverty face in a given context. Assessing poverty and vulnerability in Lesotho, however, required further adaptations beyond our methodology to capture the multiple deprivations and analyze how they are interconnected. Additional adaptations were needed to contextualize around the specific ecological drivers of poverty in each zone. We developed a poverty and vulnerability index that examined 37 different variables that correspond to widely studied dimensions of vulnerability, in addition to those most relevant to the Lesotho context. These tools were then implemented using a participatory, multi-stakeholder approach to ensure the data was verified and consistent with the situation on the ground.

The design recommended piloting the program in each of the four unique zones and put a focus largely on local market and value chain development, informed by robust and localized market assessments. It also included the provision of both household level livelihood assets, as is common in most Graduation programs, as well as a community asset, such as a grain mill or seed storage facility, that would enable entire communities to be able to adapt and transform their response to inevitable economic and climate-related shocks. The approach also recommended institutional arrangements that combined the social protection expertise of the Ministry of Social Development with the livelihoods expertise of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MAFS) to address the holistic needs of the most vulnerable parts of the population that are disproportionately reliant on subsistence agriculture.

As the impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt across the world, it is clear that it’s effects on Basotho in terms of public health, poverty and economic depression could serve to worsen an already devastating plight for the most vulnerable in the country. Knowing what we know about the importance and impact of program adaptation, a deep contextualization of response and recovery planning must be taken into consideration for the continued progress of this resilient, complex, and dynamic mountain kingdom.

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

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