One Year Later: Pivoting Poverty Alleviation Programming During COVID-19

by Jake Konig | Content Development Associate, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative

March 2021 is a time to reflect. One year ago this month, the world as we know it changed. Fundamental patterns of life taken for granted were suddenly removed from the fabric of our collective realities — classrooms, offices, sporting events, transit hubs, and all else that seemed to be normal components of a global society, fell into an eerie silence as we quickly entered into the “new normal.”

Although these changes were felt worldwide, it would be inaccurate to say that all were impacted equally. The devastating effects of the pandemic most acutely impact those around the world living in extreme poverty. For the global community of development practitioners, now is not the time for stillness. Now is a time for direct, comprehensive, and audacious action.

In order to take this necessary action, the global community must master the art of the pivot — in simple terms, a shift in direction taken in response to changing circumstances.To be able to effectively pivot is to be flexible, resilient, and responsive while rising to the challenges presented within a given context.

Drawing from our experience of adapting the Graduation approach in over 14 countries, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative has been well positioned to pivot its strategy for the COVID-19 context. One such example can be found in Zambia where BRAC UPGI partnered with the Government of Zambia and the World Bank to strengthen the impacts of the Supporting Women’s Livelihoods (SWL) Initiative on women’s empowerment.

Modeled after the Graduation approach, the SWL Initiative provides a comprehensive and holistic support to its participants. Since its launch in 2016, it has served over 75,000 women from extreme poor households by providing life and business skills training, productive grants, follow-up support and mentorship, and linkages to savings groups. The overall aim of the project is to empower these women to lift themselves and their families out of extreme poverty.

BRAC UPGI’s role within this engagement as a technical assistance provider involved revising the life and business skills training, a critical component of any Graduation program. The topics covered in the SWL Initiative’s revised life and business skills training range from reproductive and sexual health, communication skills and conflict resolution, starting and running a business, information on the importance of saving, and much more.

With this knowledge, participants will be able to make better informed decisions in their lives that promote health and financial well-being. How though, does this critical training process begin? By empowering staff on the ground through a process called a Training of Trainers (ToT).

As the name suggests, a ToT is the process of building a pool of competent instructors who can then teach a given material to other people, strengthening their ability to disseminate important information. Pre-COVID, BRAC UPGI staff would have traveled to Lusaka to hold an intensive, week-long ToT workshop where they would have trained the SWL team members on how to successfully facilitate life and business skills lessons, through participatory and interactive sessions, such as role-playing and mock sessions.

A similar training taking place at a USAID-funded session in Uganda (BRAC 2019)

In the state of the current world, however, the UPGI team had to pivot. In-person ToT had to be completely redesigned in order to take place in a remote, virtual context. Although this presented a daunting challenge, the team used creativity and worked long hours to construct a successful and engaging online ToT using the following practices:

Optimize time and attention. When physically together, people are better able to remain mentally engaged for prolonged periods of time, hence the normal week long intensive ToT workshop. However, for a remote ToT model, people are more likely to experience the infamous “Zoom fatigue” and remain engaged for shorter time periods — this led the online ToT to take place over a more extended period of time (more number of days compared to an in-person training workshop) while utilizing shorter instructional blocks (1hr 15min long session as opposed to 8hr long training day).

Utilize technological platforms to their fullest extent. To replicate the various points of feedback that would exist in a physical setting (hands being raised, active discussions in pairs or small groups, etc.) features on Zoom were used to their fullest potential. The SWL team members were constantly being put into digital breakout rooms to spur discussion, asked to write in the chat box, and take polls. Also, the BRAC UPGI team used other platforms such as Slido to solicit anonymous questions and comments and Whatsapp to provide a “backup” layer of protection against internet troubles.

Get creative to drive participation. In order to hear from everybody in the group as well as to prevent prolonged periods of silence, the team experimented with ways to drive engagement without making SWL team members feel uncomfortable. One strong method was the “pop-corn approach” where after a SWL team member answered a question, they would ask another team member to speak next. This method drove comradery in the group and maintained group attention.

Change the energy levels and have fun! One of the most important components of carrying out a successful online ToT was to maintain a positive, engaging energy in the digital space. From playing Zambian music in the background when possible, having short and frequent breaks, to quick stretches, breathing exercises, and dancing, the goal was to bring laughter into the training.

Request feedback throughout. Lastly, the SWL team was constantly asked to provide feedback in order to improve the experience as much as possible, while also providing key learnings that can be used in the future. In an anonymous survey asked at the end of the ToT, one SWL team member said:

“The training content was participatory and engaging through the use of questions, use of Whatsapp and Zoom chat box. The break out rooms as well as the homework and group activities were very helpful. The facilitators made use of a variety of training techniques.”

As we take this month to reflect on the past year, it is critical to not only remember the difficulties we faced, but to concentrate on the lessons learned and obstacles overcome. In order to serve those most impacted by this pandemic, the global development community must center adaptability and creativity — so that whatever this next year brings, there will always be the ability to pivot and push forward.