Fighting extreme poverty: Hope is the word

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) – A world free from poverty can only be achieved if the government anticipates strategic collaboration with private and social sectors towards working as one strong and united pillar.

The global fight against extreme poverty had been declared concurrently with the declaration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), when world leaders committed to halve the number of people living below the poverty line.

The MDGs were instrumental in mobilising large-scale movements against some of the most pressing problems that marred the world. Extreme poverty was one of them. With close to 40 per cent of the world population living below the poverty line in 1990, the base year for MDG data calculation, the target to halve the number was one of the most ambitious goals taken up by the world up until then.

Poverty and all its concepts can be hard to grasp for someone who has never experienced it first-hand. Still, let us try to figure out what we describe as poverty. According to World Bank, people living on or under US$1.25 per day are considered poor. That is less than the amount of one meal of an average middle class person living in Dhaka city.

The nature of poverty is such that it cannot be measured by numbers alone. Global trends show that we are winning the fight against extreme poverty with flying colours, as the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half, falling from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million 2015, thereby achieving the MDG target.

However, close to a billion people are still living in extreme poverty – some of them in ultra poverty (people who are living as low as under USD 0.80 a day). The hardest thing to grasp here is that extreme poverty is so much more than these numbers; it is a denial of basic freedom and human dignity. People living in extreme poverty have to make impossible choices everyday between food, medicine, education and housing.

What about a solution?

After years of testing different combinations of government programmes and donor support, Bangladesh-based international development organisation BRAC started targeting the ultra poor programme in 2002, with a unique solution to tackle ultra poverty. A set of carefully sequenced and tailored series of interventions were designed to build a ladder for the ultra poor.

The services include asset transfer, consumption stipend, healthcare, social integration, livelihood development training and hands-on coaching for 24 months to build confidence and graduate them out of ultra poverty. The results have been astonishing – 96 per cent of the people who were into the programme had remained outside the zone of ultra poverty even four years after the programme had ended. Most of them became mainstream microfinance clients, with easier access to finance and very much on the trajectory out of poverty.

A very relevant question can be asked at this point: would this model work anywhere else in the world? This question was raised and tested by the Consultative Group for Assisting Poor (CGAP), a World Bank organisation, and Ford Foundation in 2005. CGAP and Ford Foundation ran a series of 10 pilots in eight different countries to test the adaptability of the graduation model.

CGAP-Ford Foundation reported that after 18-36 months of running their versions of the programme, 75 to 98 per cent participants met the graduation criteria. Programme implementation-wise, these numbers are quite successful. BRAC itself has taken this model elsewhere in the form of providing technical assistance to Haiti, Yemen, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Randomised control trials are considered the gold standard in impact assessment and studies conducted in six countries, on some 21,000 people; following this method has proven that the aid package gives the very poor families a significant boost that continues after the programme ends. One key thing about this model is not just a cow or a few goats, but the hope that comes with it. As famous columnist Nicholas Kristof has mentioned in a recent New York Times column, this model is the mechanism of hope that helps people make headway out of poverty.

BRAC is ready to leverage its experience and knowledge by working with others to end ultra poverty by empowering women in general and people living in hard-to-reach areas. The organisation suggests focusing on solutions for the barriers to achieving MDGs, for example, eliminating inequity to ensure inclusive growth, improving quality of service delivery, and new opportunities for the marginalised, among others.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), followed by the MDGs, are the next set of global goals set to end poverty by 2030. Bangladesh performed tremendously by reducing the rate of poverty by adapting effective poverty reduction strategies towards achieving MDGs. However, 28 million people still consume below the daily minimum diet, whereas 39.2 million people live below the poverty line. This is close to the population of Australia and the Netherlands combined. To address this, the government of Bangladesh is developing social safety net strategies and has raised the budget for target-oriented expansion of social safety net programmes.

Poverty is interrelated with many issues that need to be addressed in a holistic manner. However, anti-poverty drives were found to have a great spillover effect on other factors of social development. Now we are aiming for a world free from poverty, inequity and inequality by the year 2030. We look ahead to working on solutions that will make the goal a reality. This can only be achieved if the government anticipates strategic collaboration with private and social sectors towards working as one strong and united pillar.

(The writers are Manager of Communications, and Deputy Manager of Communications at BRAC, respectively.)


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