Paving the Path for Adoption of the Graduation Approach by National Governments

By Ruth Levine, PhD — CEO | IDinsight

Governments are entrusted by citizens with tremendous responsibilities. They must collect revenues from businesses and households and use them to assure public safety, infrastructure, education, healthcare, and other services that respond to both universal needs and the particular challenges of society’s most vulnerable. Carrying out these responsibilities, which are negotiated through intense political processes, requires governments to overcome bureaucratic structures, strained capacity for implementation, and budgetary limits. To do so, particularly for programs that focus on people who are poor and vulnerable, governments can draw inspiration and guidance from successful innovators within non-governmental organizations and use-cases from other governments piloting these approaches — along with evidence about potential impact and feasibility from the research community.

NGOs can innovate. Driven by mission and freed from sectoral silos, NGOs have the potential to holistically address the needs of communities and individuals. Committed for the long term and detached from political cycles, NGOs can respond not only to the immediate needs of the poorest citizens but can also break a path toward decent work and sustained income security.

At BRAC, for instance, we’ve seen creation of the Ultra-Poor Graduation approach, a model which provides support, from small business capital to health care, to the poorest, most marginalized households. In 2015, a six-country study of the Graduation approach found that three years after program participants received a combination of productive assets, cash, coaching, and healthcare, they were significantly better off financially and physically than peers who did not participate — a sustained impact that surpassed the track record of many other anti-poverty programs. In at least some settings, the Graduation approach demonstrated that a well-designed program for the poorest people can increase the chances that families can escape from poverty — a safety net can be a trampoline.

Kenya’s PROFIT Financial Graduation pilot officials visit Bangladesh Graduation participants prior to their program launch

Results like these have energized donors and governments alike into asking: Can governments use holistic programming to dramatically improve the performance of public sector anti-poverty programs? The ambition has both tremendous appeal — and huge hurdles to overcome. Going from success at limited scale outside the confines of government to effective redirection of public policies and resources requires a savvy political strategy and context-specific analytic support, and the data to back it up.

The analytic agenda has four elements: How to target, how to implement, who’s going to support or oppose, and how to finance.

How to target? Any anti-poverty program needs a targeting strategy that is both technically sound and politically feasible. This might mean depending on national registries, community knowledge, and/or basic means testing — all methods with strengths and limitations. Careful analytic support to program designers can estimate the extent of consistency across methods, and the potential for “leakage” or exclusion. High quality methods, like a participatory rural appraisal (PRA), are especially important because these populations are often invisible to policymakers.

How to implement? The day-to-day implementation of new or modified programs is hard, particularly when programs cross sectoral boundaries. Staff need to be assigned and trained. Roles and responsibilities need to get worked out, along with performance goals, supervisory arrangements, and information flows, including channels for beneficiary feedback. When resources are transferred, as they are in the Graduation approach, checks and balances are needed to prevent misappropriation. For all of this and more, episodic process evaluations shaped around the questions of program implementers can identify bottlenecks and areas of risk that need remediation.

A participatory rural appraisal (PRA) taking place in Bangladesh (BRAC 2015)

Who will support and who will oppose? Success in achieving scale through the public sector depends on sufficient political support and containment of opposition, whether overt or through foot-dragging. Political mapping informed by deep contextual knowledge can help to identify the interests at play, how leaders at all levels can be engaged constructively, and how to organize support. Moreover, analytic work can be designed to respond to key interests. For instance, if a decision maker cares more about labor market outcomes than health, the productivity-related implications of health care investments can be estimated.

How to finance? While NGO programs can — and often are — supported entirely by international donors through official development assistance and philanthropic contributions, fully implemented national programs cannot depend on outside help for long. New entitlements have to be paired with sustainable financing, typically through tax revenues. Careful analysis of fixed and variable program costs over the medium term is needed to understand the potential call on the treasury. In concert, decision makers need a clear-eyed, technically sound assessment of the potential for cutting the fiscal pie in new ways and/or increasing the size of the pie altogether.

Can an innovation that has demonstrated success, like the Graduation approach, be adopted by national governments, particularly as COVID-19 has disrupted economies and pushed increasing numbers of vulnerable families into deeper poverty? Many of us are hoping the answer is “yes,” and know that one way to accelerate progress is to attend to the research, evaluation, and fiscal analysis agenda, shaped to each country’s specific needs.

IDinsight is a non-profit, global advisory, data analytics, and research organization that helps development leaders maximize their social impact.

Ruth E. Levine, Ph.D., guides the overall strategic direction of IDinsight. She is a development economist with more than three decades of experience working on the design and implementation of policies and programs related to global health and education, social protection, gender equality, and labor markets. An expert on the use of data and evidence for decision-making, Ruth led the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development and Population Program between 2011–19.

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

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