Lessons on Adaptation and Scale from BRAC’s Graduation Program in Bangladesh

By Isabel Whisson | Special Assistant for Strategy, BRAC UPGI

This month BRAC is excited to welcome the publication of the World Bank Partnership for Economic Inclusion’s flagship State of Economic Inclusion 2021 report. Among a rich collection of data and insight from economic inclusion programs around the world, the report features a case study on BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation program (UPG) in Bangladesh. The program, which was established in 2002, and recorded significant and sustained program impacts on earnings, consumption, and savings, has continuously evolved, while scaling nationwide to over 2 million households. The case study distills what BRAC learned on how to effectively adapt and scale its program, sharing insights that can be applied to other Graduation and economic inclusion programs around the world.

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Kajli shows off her prized pigeons in Sirajganj, Bangladesh (2017)

Lessons on Adaptation

  • Flexible funding creates a safe space for practitioners to experiment and innovate. BRAC benefited from a flexible funding arrangement with Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Offices (FCO) (previously DFID), Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) among others that placed more emphasis on how to maximise outcomes than a given program design. This flexibility enabled a culture of learning and experimentation that led to successful iteration.
  • Graduation should be viewed as an adaptive methodology, not a rigid program model. Over time BRAC learned that Graduation should be applied as an approach that ties together key areas of programming, rather than any given set of particularized interventions. This gave BRAC space to adapt the types of interventions it delivered while maintaining integrity to the key principles of Graduation. This led to highly contextualized program interventions capable of generating significant and lasting outcomes.
  • Graduation’s unique value lies in its continual refocusing on who the poorest households are and how to meet their evolving needs. Because these vary from context to context and over time, Graduation programs must constantly recalibrate in order to serve the needs of the poorest. This applies to the adaptation of indicators for recognizing who the poorest households are, as well as what program elements should be. For example, in the early 2000s, households struggled to meet necessary caloric intake needed to uphold a decent livelihood. Addressed through a temporary consumption stipend, today most households living in extreme poverty have food security but require support in other areas, such as how to access government safety nets and health services they were entitled to but didn’t know how to claim.
  • Continuous learning and evaluation via a multitude of learning methods is integral to effective and efficient adaptation. This goes beyond external independent impact evaluations, which in spite of their rigour, only capture the impacts of a program during a particular time. From the outset, BRAC researchers have worked hand in hand with program officers to test design adaptations before scaling each new program iteration. Effective iteration was also enabled through feedback loops that empowered field staff at the grassroots to report observations in a way that informed decision-making at the highest levels.
  • The coaching element of Graduation is a critical mechanism for monitoring how participants are responding to program interventions in real time. Data collected from coaching visits can indicate to program managers where adjustments to the support offered are needed. For larger programs, staff can identify patterns and quickly act to address them.
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A community mapping exercise as part of the participatory rural appraisal (PRA), a targeting method used to help the program identify the poorest people where BRAC works.

Lessons on Scale

  • Programs that leverage existing structures and services can maximise cost efficiencies. All Graduation and economic inclusion programs should review what services are already available to the poorest people, and view its role as filling critical gaps. While BRAC once used to include a health intervention in its UPG program, today the organization connects participants to government health services that are now available. This logic applies outside of direct delivery too. In BRAC’s work providing technical assistance to partners in a range of countries, BRAC leverages resources that governments and multilateral donors dedicate to social protection programming looking at where existing government programs can be converged and leveraged as part of a Graduation framework.
  • Applying Graduation as an adaptive methodology provides a framework for how to expand into a range of contexts, with a range of actors, in a range of operating scenarios. For example, BRAC’s four-pillar approach, emphasizes the importance of meeting basic needs, building livelihoods, enabling financial inclusion, and promoting social empowerment, without over-prescribing how to do so in each context. The details of how to design the interventions is informed by field teams that have an intimate understanding of local contexts. Through this approach, BRAC has adapted the Graduation approach to refugee settlement and host communities, urban populations, fragile contexts, communities affected by climate change, and people with disabilities; with governments and NGOs of varying sizes; and during times of political, climate, or pandemic-induced crisis.

BRAC’s rich learning from adapting and scaling the Ultra-Poor Graduation program in Bangladesh created a strong foundation on which to build, adapt, and scale far beyond. Today BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative is working with a range of partners, including national and local government ministries and departments, to adapt and scale the Graduation approach in government systems. You can read more about this work here.

References

Partnership for Economic Inclusion. (2021). https://www.peiglobal.org/resources/state-economic-inclusion-report-2021-potential-scale

BRAC. (2015). ‘Case Study 3: Adapting BRAC’s Graduation Program to the Changing Poverty Context in Bangladesh.’ Whisson, Isabel. https://www.peiglobal.org/sites/pei/files/2021-01/Case%20Study%203.pdf

Balboni et al. (2015). Transforming the Economic Lives of the Ultra-Poor. https://www.theigc.org/reader/transforming-the-economic-lives-of-the-ultra-poor/

BRAC Graduation Overview. https://bracultrapoorgraduation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Graduation-Overview-Jan-2021.pdf

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

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