Why I’m Optimistic We Can Achieve SDG #1—Ending Poverty In All Its Forms, Everywhere

 In the Philippines, a new approach is being taken to help people affected by poverty. Photo: ADB
In the Philippines, a new approach is being taken to help people affected by poverty. Photo: ADB

By Alessandra Heinemann

The graduation approach provides a sequenced intervention designed to overcome multiple barriers that prevent the extreme poor from breaking out of poverty.

At the top of ADB’s Strategy 2030 is the goal of eradicating absolute poverty, closely aligned with Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals unveiled by the United Nations in 2015. Despite enormous progress in reducing income poverty in recent decades, getting to zero will be tough.

The latest data suggest that the pace of poverty reduction in the Asia Pacific region has slowed. Solving the last mile problem in the journey to eradicating poverty by the target date challenges us to move beyond a narrow focus on individual sectors to tackle multi-dimensional problems with integrated solutions.

It’s a daunting task, but a recent visit to the Philippines’ Negros Occidental province with ADB’s new Graduation Working Group gave me a glimpse of how this might work.

In partnership with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), BRAC and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), ADB is piloting what is known as the graduation approach. Graduation refers to a time-bound “big push” – a sequenced intervention designed to overcome multiple barriers that prevent the extreme poor from breaking out of poverty.

Graduation programs are operating in more than 40 countries on four continents. Most of these programs are in low- and lower-middle-income countries and three-quarters of them are in fragile or conflict-affected countries, but all target the poorest.

Typically, graduation interventions combine four elements:

  1. Social protection: cash grants to improve nutrition and consumption
  2. Financial inclusion: access to a savings account and potentially other financial products
  3. A productive asset appropriate to the local market context, like carabao, chickens, or food carts
  4. Coaching: technical skills for livelihoods, financial management, and mentoring and access to basic services.

  A pilot program in the Philippines is attacking poverty with an innovative approach.

A rigorous set of impact evaluations has documented the effectiveness of the graduation approach in different country contexts, demonstrating positive outcomes in terms of income, savings, productivity, health and well-being. Impacts were sustained several years after the end of the intervention, suggesting that graduation does indeed result in a step change for participants. For every dollar spent on the program in India, poor households experienced $4.33 in long-term benefits.

The pilot in the Philippines will help build the evidence on the graduation approach. It was designed as a randomized control trial to determine whether group or individual livelihoods and coaching are more cost effective. Its results will have implications for the 100+ graduation programs under implementation worldwide.

What I found most inspiring is how closely the pilot is embedded into existing government structures. It targets beneficiaries of the ADB-supported Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, the flagship conditional cash transfer led by the Department of Social Welfare and Development. The pilot supplements the cash transfers with a productive asset provided by DOLE and coaching and technical assistance provided by BRAC. The graduation approach is providing the framework for integrating existing government interventions into one user-friendly bundle.

A team of 12 stellar graduation community facilitators are the face of the pilot for the 1,800 participating households. Not only do they provide technical and business management training, they also help each household formulate a family development plan, prioritizing goals and breaking them down into actionable steps.

One of the beneficiaries I visited told me that to improve the sturdiness of her home ahead of the rainy season she had defined weekly savings targets and set a detailed plan to improve the roof and drainage. Next on her list was to purchase her kids’ school supplies for the coming academic year.   

I left thinking that approaches like graduation can provide the glue to hold multi-sector programs together, delivering real impact that could help us overcome the last mile of poverty. Central to the success of this approach is integrating expertise across sector silos to address ever more complex development challenges—also an ambition of ADB’s Strategy 2030.