What is the ‘Graduation Approach’?

The ‘graduation approach’ targets the poorest in a country for direct assistance. Photo: ADB
The ‘graduation approach’ targets the poorest in a country for direct assistance. Photo: ADB

By Palak Rawal

Countries around the world are taking an integrated approach to address the complexities of poverty. 

In years past, traditional poverty alleviation programs have often been unable to target the poorest and sustain long term benefits. In recent years, it has become clear that poverty is a complex web of issues, usually not addressed with simplistic solutions.

With this in mind, 43 countries around the world have tried to address poverty through a development practice called the “graduation approach”. It combines cash assistance that meets the immediate needs of the poor with long-term livelihood and social assistance. Globally, more than 14 million people have been impacted by such programs.

But how exactly does it work? Imagine a 55-year old woman living in a developing country in Asia, with her husband and seven children. For the last few decades, she and her husband have worked as farm laborers earning a meagre $75 a month. They are among the poorest of the poor in their country. Nevertheless, she has always been optimistic about her children’s future and wishes to see them graduate from high school. With support from a government social assistance program, she sent three of her children to school and borrowed from her relatives for the rest.

Two years ago, when the plantation cut back its workforce, her husband lost his job. With a sharp drop in income and ballooning debt, putting food on the table became a struggle. As days turned into months, their children got weaker and their health were at risk. She worried about their future, and that the family would remain trapped in the same poverty that she endured.

When our sample person first heard of a “graduation program” aimed at livelihoods promotion, she was hesitant. She was worried if she would ever be able to run a business. “Would I need to return the capital invested in my business? If I lose money, would it push me into greater debt?” These were some crippling fears that ran through her mind.

She was assured by a group of trained facilitators that she would be supported in the process end-to-end: she would pick an asset, receive technical training to generate income from it, acquire information to run her household, and receive help from a mentor for the next whole year. All this would be provided while she received cash support from the government.

Knowing that she would be supported at every step of the way, she gained confidence and enrolled in the program. She was then asked to pick an asset from a list of economically viable options. She picked meat processing because she believed it would provide her a steady income. After a thorough livelihoods matching exercise, a facilitator from the program helped her prepare a family development plan. She was asked: How would you envision your family’s lives in the next one, five and ten years? She wrote about her wish: that all her children have stable jobs one day.

  The graduation approach is blending government social programs and sustained help to address poverty.

Three months into the program, she received training on the skills required to manage a meat processing unit and the knowledge to run a business in her neighborhood. Once she felt prepared, she was given a freezer and eight kilos of meat to start off her unit, seed capital that she will not have to pay back.

Six months into the program, she started earning income from her business, and she managed it well due to the financial literacy training that helped her save and invest better. She also received life skills sessions that her entire family participated in together. After a session on water and sanitation, the family learned to only drink boiled water. She also prepared a simple disaster preparation kit for her family that contains medicines, clothes and contact numbers in case of emergencies, which she learned in a session on disaster risk management. Little changes like these can save lives.

Later in the program, she was coached on important aspects of household decision-making, maternal and child health, and emotional resilience, among others. She maintains a notebook for all the lessons she’s learned and is now asking her program facilitator for additional information, such as innovative methods to increase sales. “I want to become the main supplier of meat in my community and expand to other production units.” From being chronically impoverished, she now has the opportunity and hope to lift herself and her family out of poverty. This is how the graduation approach is designed to work.

This approach uses sequenced, time-bound, and comprehensive interventions that prepare the poorest to sustainably progress out of poverty. It builds on existing social assistance programs and is tailored to the specific needs of each participating community. It also provides an opportunity for governments around the world to address poverty using an integrated and multidimensional approach, rather than a simple fix to this complex problem.