Fighting Poverty: The Graduation Program

Poverty comes in different degrees. As Tina Rosenberg points out in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times: “There’s poor, and then there’s ultrapoor. The ultrapoor are almost always women and largely found in Africa, South Asia and to a lesser extent, parts of Latin America. They are most often rural. They work as maids or field laborers, often paid not with wages but in food scraps. They might have just one dress or sari, and must wash a part of it at a time while wearing it, or stay in the river for modesty till it dries.” Tina Rosenberg adds that the difference between poor and ultrapoor isn’t just one of degree. Being ultrapoor has an extra component: it is a trap so deep, people can’t take advantage of ways to improve their lives.


Image credit: Paul Downey, CC BY 2.0

However, there is hope — results from a new study published in the scientific journal Science show the success of an anti-poverty program that targets the “ultrapoor”, a category often overlooked by economic development interventions. The study included more than 20,000 people enrolled across six countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, India, Pakistan, and Peru) over a three-year period, and aimed to determine whether or not helping the ultrapoor — simultaneously and in multiple ways — could be especially effective in fighting poverty. Specifically, the study focused on the establishment of sustainable self-employment activities, and the subsequent generation of lasting improvements in the well-being of the ultrapoor.

The program, based on the graduation approach — an integrated, five-step methodology aimed at transitioning extremely poor populations into sustainable livelihoods — provides the poorest members in a village with a productive asset grant, training and support, life skills coaching, temporary cash consumption support, and typically access to savings accounts and health information or services. In each country, the program was adjusted to suit different contexts and cultures, while staying true to the same overall principles.

The study results show that the program — aptly called “graduation program” as it graduates the ultrapoor from poverty — produced a 5 percent increase in per capita income, an 8 percent increase in food consumption, a 15 percent increase in assets, and a 96 percent increase in savings, compared with similar groups of people not enrolled in the program.

Abhijit Banerjee, one of the researchers involved in the study, said in a press release: “The results show that three years after the intervention, hunger is down, consumption is up, and income is up.” He added: “It seems to be an improvement that happens and stays intact,” noting that the self-reported mental health of participants improved as well: “They are happier, too.”

Importantly, the study results show not only what works, but also that what works in one setting can be made to work in another.


  1. I have noticed in the past few months an increase of the individuals who are in need of obtaining either food or drink or shelter among. This observation made me think about the causes and the reasons for its spread and what we can offer to remove it from our society. There are many factors that lead to the spread of poverty and one of them I think is despair. When despair takes control of individuals, they do not seize the opportunities present and they lose hope, so instead they should cling to hope and self-confidence. Another reason for poverty is that some young people lack access to jobs therefore, their living standard would fall. So they need to have support to discover their abilities in being productive and ultimately improve their living conditions. When there are certain reasons leading to poverty, there has to be solutions as well. Solutions to ending poverty would involve providing jobs for all segments of society and the role of charities that make training courses for the poor to develop their skills in computers, drawing, sewing and other specialties. There are many solutions that we can do it for them and make contributions so that we can eradicate poverty from societies.

  2. This graduation program is amazing. It targets the aspects of life that many have taken for granted. What sticks out most to me is the training and support, life skills coaching and access to health information and savings. Being skilled in a trade and using those skills to benefit the community, having good physical and mental health and knowing that you and your family will be able to eat can do wonders for the economy. By increasing the knowledge and capability of an individual, they can be strengthened to take control of their life. “Teaching a man to fish” is the best option in my option. A Malawian boy built a windmill from scraps to bring power to his family home at age 14. Out of necessity he taught himself how to do so, showing that education can help those in poverty “graduate” to an increased quality of life.

    Teachers and those that give support are taken for granted, as is the role of science and research. Entertainment and politics seem to be at the forefront, and most of the first world is plagued by greed. More attention should be on the importance of education and being self sufficient.

  3. The term ultra-poor was coined in 1986 by Michael Lipton of the University of Sussex i.e. group of people that eat below the 80% of their body energy needs even after using 80% of their income. There is a Bangladesh based NGO BRACis the part of ultra-poor graduation, based on the concept of ‘tailored for the ultra-poor’ and within 24 months the results were seen. BRAC focus on financial inclusion, education, agriculture and food security, water and sanitation, Healthcare, community empowerment and legal rights. The partnership with the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) and the Ford Foundation, researchers lead to the development of the Ultra-Poor Graduation model in five different place Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, Peru, and Yemen.
    There are various other strategies through which ultra-poor can be control like Effective Economic Strengthening for the Ultra Poor Affected by HIV, New Frontiers in Building Savings Groups and Leveraging Their Capacities for the Poorest, More than Just Measuring Poverty – Using Data to Strengthen Products and Delivery Channels.
    I believe these approaches are really helping alot in eradication of ultra-poor across the world.

  4. I want to share this TED Talk by Gary Haugen, he talks about all these programs that are out there to help fight global poverty. This plan and others do help out the poor, and we have come a long way within the past century. But the issue is just not the lack of money, food, water, and shelter. But the fact they are in dangerous communities and nothing is being done to help fight against it. Violence being done towards the poor will only keep them down and as long as they can be exploited through violence they might stay down there. Generally the laws are there to keep it from happening but without enforcement to stop the violence it will continue.

  5. This is interesting. Atlanta (where I live) has its fair share of impoverished folks however this has nothing on the ultra poverty occurring overseas in countries where what we’d consider middle class struggles to eat. Working for scraps of food, its just not right.
    I only wish this post enlightened us just exactly they have these people begin doing to make their livelihood. Was it farming? At the least you can have food available and any extra crop can be sold off to others. This program seems to need a decent amount of startup money to take care of these people while they get their lives together. Unfortunately the impression I get is the Graduation Program finds people are in their situation because maybe they just don’t understand frugality . Just the part where it mentions the life coach I have to wonder, for one, if people can even really change, and two if they will not find themselves in the same situation a few months down the road. Its nearly impossible to change your social class, even here in the U.S which some consider it a land of opportunity. After seeing what ultra poor looks like first hand in Nicaragua its most often the result of corruption in government and those exerting force over a docile populace. These people filled garbage bags of trash for a dollar a day. They waded in rivers, and lived in it. My fear for not just ultra-poor, but poor is that we can’t build up from the bottom. It may be a matter of taking someone down at the top. Perhaps it will take a harmonious mixture of the two.

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