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
- Assume a comfy equilibrium position to which people can and should be returned – a notion at odds with the shock-prone livelihoods of the poorest people (see what my colleagues at IDS have been finding in research on graduation from the PSNP in Ethiopia)
- Imply clever ‘strategic’, cost-saving programmes that appeal way more to the Social Protection Expert than to someone facing the hungry season (again)
- Take for granted that all people can fend for themselves in increasingly globalised and volatile labour and food markets: this is despite protests against current economic and food systems that signal a demand for change so that people face less risk in the first instance (check out how our new project on the moral and political economy of hunger is exploring this).
- Are blind to both the vulnerabilities inherent in the life cycle, and the vital role of unpaid care work in protecting people who are too young, old, ill or infirm to graduate or be resilient (which a new report finds is hardly unusual in development programmes).
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:
- Measure the support going to reducing the drudgery of unpaid care work
- Ask women how they manage their care responsibilities while on ‘productive’ safety net schemes
- 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.