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Dangerous Habits of Thought: why I fear ‘graduation’ and ‘resilience’


Development Pathways

Shivers ran down my spine when I interviewed an official in Bangladesh about social protection last week. We had a friendly discussion about, among other things, why the Government of Bangladesh has shown such strong commitment to social protection – including taking out a US$0.5 billion soft loan with the World Bank, to patch the holes in its safety nets. This was a knowledgeable individual with a strong personal commitment to poverty reduction. Then he mentioned the new policy thrust on ‘graduation’: his eyes lit up with the zeal of a fresh convert, and a chill came over me. 

Why does ‘graduation’ worry me so much? For much the same reasons I fear ‘resilience’: both concepts pack in big fat assumptions about the nature of risk and people’s capacities to manage it that encourage dangerous habits of thought. They 

Care-blindness disables both the concepts of graduation and resilience. When I worked on BRAC’s CFPR/ Ultra Poor programme in the early 2000s I met a beneficiary who was doing well, eating better, saving a little. A likely graduate success. So why was her young daughter at home on a school day? The beneficiary looked at me like I was a fool. To do the housework, of course. Who was going to cook clean and look after the baby while mummy was out doing business? The idea of resilience to shocks similarly ignores unpaid care work. It is largely through pressure on unpaid care – via men working longer hours and migrating more, women doing more paid work, harder work gathering, growing, sourcing and preparing food – that families have been protecting themselves against the ongoing food price volatility. But if you are blind to the unpaid work that keeps families fed and care for, you will not see pain and strain – only a capacity to cope, invisibly and without end.

Don’t take my word for this. Next time you evaluate a programme that promotes graduation or resilience, do three things:

  1. Measure the support going to reducing the drudgery of unpaid care work
  2. Ask women how they manage their care responsibilities while on ‘productive’ safety net schemes
  3. And then evaluate how much graduation or interventions to improve resilience have increased people’s wellbeing.

This blog is written by Naomi Hossain, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. She thought resilience was something to do with yoga, but now she knows it just means ignoring what hurts.


  • Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that.

    And he just ought me lunch since I found it for him smile So
    let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!

  • In order not to ‘graduate’ (phase out) households that may be better off after having received monthly transfers for 2 years, but are still vulnerable because they are still labour constrained (still no breadwinners), the Manual of Operations of the Zimbabwe Harmonized Social Cash Transfer Program states:

    “The task of retargeting is to adapt the programme every two years to all these changes by:
    • Re-approving all current beneficiary households that are still labour constrained
    • Phasing out those beneficiary households that are no longer labour constrained
    • Updating the volume of the transfers to the present number of household members
    • Approving additional households that have become extremely poor and labour constrained since the last targeting has been done

    Beneficiary households that are still labour constrained have to be re-approved even if their economic status has improved. This is to avoid that they fall back into extreme poverty.”


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