Putting Data First: Designing Social Protection Programs that Work

By Bobby Irven, Communications Officer, BRAC UPGI

Recent events have dealt a heavy blow to the past few decades of progress against extreme poverty. A recent brief by the International Growth Center (IGC) outlines that prior to the pandemic those most in need were already being left behind by traditional development programming. Researchers Nidhi Parekh and Oriana Bandiera discuss the opportunities and challenges faced in reaching the most marginalized populations and how we can overcome them.

Parekh and Bandiera’s latest research brief: “Do social assistance programmes reach the poor? Micro-evidence from 123 countries.”

By compiling decades worth of data, large scale institutions and grassroots organizations have come to the conclusion that social protection programs work. From unconditional and conditional cash transfers to food and in-kind transfers, they found that governments that invest in social safety nets can reduce poverty rates for large portions of their populations.

A major caveat however comes as a warning for program designers and implementers alike: the poorest and most marginalized people are often left behind. Proper targeting and program adaptation are often inhibited by monetary and time constraints, and both are critical for ensuring the success and sustainment of such programs. The recent research using the World Bank ASPIRE (The Atlas of Social Protection Indicators of Resilience and Equity) dataset, covering 123 developing and transitioning countries, shows major differences between countries both in the cost effectiveness and success of reaching the poorest in social assistance programming. These inadequacies mainly sit in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which could have lasting implications for the future of poverty reduction efforts there.

As we have found in our Ultra-Poor Graduation approach, understanding the poverty landscape of a particular area or country, as well as utilizing a contextualized targeting methodology, allows for our programs to reach those in the most vulnerable situations and most dire need of assistance. While the researcher’s data found the lowest coverage and effectiveness in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, our programs and pilots in those locations have found great success there due to a focus on adaptation and data-driven interventions, and our impact continues to grow. Prior to COVID-19 and related lockdowns, our Ultra-Poor Graduation program in Bangladesh had surpassed reaching over nine million people, with an average “graduation” rate of 95 percent. However large this number, the population of people living in extreme poverty remains high — more than 700 million people — and is predicted to increase by nearly 100 million people by the end of the year as a result of the pandemic.

Participants work with their coaches on financial literacy in northern Bangladesh.

In order to design and build programs that address the multidimensional, long-term needs of people living in extreme poverty, high-quality data must be utilized at every step of the process. In their findings, Parekh and Bandiera point out there is a direct and clear correlation between program quality and data. From national data sets and trends to participatory targeting methods, BRAC’s Graduation approach assesses all available information through vulnerability assessments to fully understand the profiles, challenges, and opportunities of the most excluded populations and inform the design of contextualized program interventions that meet the unique needs of the target population.

By leveraging and expanding existing schemes or safety nets, we are able to provide long-term benefits to participants and their communities. Social protection and safety nets programs are crucial to the wellbeing and survival of tens of millions of individuals and households around the world, particularly during COVID. It is for this reason that we fight everyday to uplift the most marginalized and vulnerable people living in extreme poverty. We believe programs like those built around our Graduation approach, based on holistic, contextualized, and sustainable principles, are the solution to many of the problems highlighted in the IGC’s recent publication, and we continue to work and partner with governments and international institutions to make our vision a reality by ensuring no one is left behind.

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