Lessons Learned: Sustainable Livelihoods For The World’s Poorest Youth Population
By Arinaitwe Shammah, Technical Specialist, BRAC Uganda
When one thinks of Uganda, what images generally come to mind? A resilient nation with the second youngest population in the world? Most likely not the image you conjured. Demographically speaking, with a median age of 15.8, Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world, with close to sixty percent of the population under the age of 18 and a large percentage of them living in extreme poverty. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, a staggering 78 percent of youth were unemployed, creating a ripple effect that could last generations to come.
For this reason, BRAC’s first Graduation program in Uganda was designed to target this at-risk population. Since the pilot launched in 2016, the program has focused on building sustainable and resilient employment options tailored for youth, as well as promoting financial inclusion, providing access to existing public services, and supporting greater social integration for extreme poor, youth-headed households.
At the end of the 30-month pilot, evaluators found substantial improvements in the economic and physical wellbeing of participants as well as meaningful behavior change representing overall household improvement. Through the establishment of formal savings groups, peer support groups, and regular coaching, participants saw increased savings, social integration, and business planning. By the end of the program over 90 percent of participants had accumulated a savings, with an overall savings increase of 34 percent. This behavior has been found vital as it creates greater resilience against future health or natural disaster shocks. Regular coaching helped participants and household members improve their health and nutritional status, which signals overall improvement to food security, a shift that is designed to be sustained long after formal programming ends. Given the importance that livelihoods play in the success and future of participants, results from conclusion of the pilot also signaled substantial increases in crop production and animal stock, illustrating the benefits to both the training and mentorship opportunities provided throughout the program. However, the impact of the Graduation program often reached far beyond the households selected for participation, as is the case for many Graduation programs around the world.
After the successful completion of the pilot, BRAC Uganda observed that communities as a whole also benefited from the program. The creation of Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) and individual/group training sessions were initially meant to help instill better savings practices along with a savings fund to use in the event of emergencies or large, one time costs like school fees or doctor visits. By expanding learning and participation opportunities within the VSLAs and various training sessions to the wider community, particularly targeted at the spouses of participants, the program gave individuals, households, and entire communities increased access to micro credit, health awareness, and vital skills. These newly gained skills and behavior changes for an entire household serve as an even larger indicator of future success compared to the sole improvement of a singular participant.
The majority of Graduation programs around the world generally focus solely on female participants, but given the demographics and poverty level of youth, more male participants were invited into the program than past pilots. Engaging the young female participants with children was found to actually be much easier when compared with youth male participants despite the additional roles they cover within the family unit. This could be attributed to their high interest in ventures that increase income to put towards supporting the entire family and an openness to take on new opportunities created by training and home visits, and the suitability of pursuing home-based livelihoods. However, despite the initial high interest to improve household livelihoods and income, female youth were constantly faced with challenges to their asset ownership and management, as women’s property rights in rural Uganda are still relatively tenuous. This weakened their ability to have more influence on the decisions of when and where to sell produce and products, and how to use money earned from the sales made.
In some cases this transition from more traditional gender roles would give rise to incidents of gender-based violence. Staff observed that instances of domestic violence increased for participants who had gone through substantial life and skills training. To mitigate these challenges and support wider involvement of spouses, the program was adjusted to include spouses in coaching sessions around family planning and asset managers, noticeably lessening instances of dispute or violence. These coaching sessions emphasized the important role women play in ensuring the entire household remains on track to sustainably graduate from extreme poverty.
In households where a woman’s ownership of assets and property was challenged, providing livelihood options that were culturally perceived as suitable for women became an important practice in catering to the specific Ugandan context and supporting participant success. Poultry rearing (ducks, chicken, turkeys, and pigeons), hair dressing, tailoring, cultivating garden vegetables, petty homestead business, and food drying were more widely accepted and still provided women with additional income, greater independence, and livelihood development.
The empowerment of female participants, sometimes seen as less tangible in development program monitoring, is a vital pillar to the success of the Graduation approach. Often materialized in the form of increased decision-making, all VSLA group leadership committees were encouraged to have at least 50 percent women representation to help promote this concept. In the pilot groups it was found that the most preferred roles for the women were treasurers, box keepers and money counters. This was accredited to the fact that female youth were considered more trustworthy (i.e. not misappropriating group funds) and consistent (regularly attending the weekly meetings), thus creating greater reliability throughout the group.
The involvement in the operations of the VSLAs not only provided an additional platform for young women to have their voices heard and options weighed during decision-making, but it also built people management skills, self esteem, confidence, and improved literacy and numeracy along the way. Many of these young women have gone on to become mentors to peers, advisors on livelihoods issues, and promoters of family planning initiatives throughout their communities.
The young women and mothers who participated in the pilot now serve as role models within their family units and for their communities, displaying a pathway out of extreme poverty and into a brighter future.