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Graduation into Social Protection: access to social assistance, not off of it, is critical for the ultrapoor


india-self-help-group-2There are various ways for economic development programmes to define graduation—and it’s not always ‘out’ of a programme. While policymakers rightly consider whether and how to augment the sustainability of social protection programmes through a productive component (including graduation initiatives), it is also worth considering how some programmes are simply overlooking the most vulnerable of the population they were designed to serve. 

Families living in ultra-poverty are isolated from their communities and susceptible to economic shocks. In many countries they struggle to access services to which they are entitled, including pensions and other cash transfers, employment schemes, public health services, and subsidised goods. They may not be enrolled or receive benefits because their marginal status led them to be missed by government surveyors, or because they lack information about programs and their rights to access them. People living in ultra-poverty, and women in particular, often cannot muster the confidence to confront a local shopkeeper when their subsidised food allocation is short, much less enter a health clinic or government office to seek services to which they are entitled.

When effective implementation of social protection schemes is lacking, poverty reduction programmes such as the graduation initiatives can help ultra-poor families build the connections and confidence required to access their entitlements as they move ahead economically. Graduation initiatives, such as those implemented by members of the CGAP-Ford Foundation consortium, seek to help participants acquire the resources and skills to establish sustainable livelihoods and build financial strength. But they can also help families build a web of support within their communities and the confidence to utilise those connections. Increasing social capital can reinforce financial capital, and vice versa. Trickle Up, utilising a variation of the graduation model, seeks to help women make meaningful connections with their peers in savings and credit groups. Training to groups goes beyond financial management to include information on entitlements to specific government programmes and how to access them.


Lack of information is one barrier to access, and mobility and confidence are others. Women living in ultra-poverty in particular tend to stay in and around their homes when they’re not migrating for work. Participation in an economic development programme brings them to trainings and markets, weekly savings and credit group meetings, and occasionally to the bank – usually for the first time ever. This mobility builds confidence, which is strengthened by the support of other group members. With information and greater confidence, together they begin to make plans to advocate collectively for their rights.

Research on over 1,100 Trickle Up participants in India in 2012 showed that nearly two-thirds of participants took collective action with their self-help group to improve their situations. These actions included engaging in or advocating for community work and infrastructure improvements, demanding bank linkages for their groups, and accessing benefits from the government. Not all of their efforts were successful, of course, even when staff directly intervened to address supply side barriers such as prejudice and poor management by service providers. Even so, in the words of Parvati Murmu, a group member in Purulia, West Bengal, “we didn’t know that we would get work if we put pressure in the Gram Sansad [local government] meetings. Now after putting pressure we are getting work for around 50 days while earlier it was only 7 days [per year].”


Sometimes simply helping people to gain official identity documents can be an important step in enabling access to other programmes. In Burkina Faso, Trickle Up’s partner helped the third of participating families who did not have national identity cards to obtain them. People without an ID card face regular harassment from officials who often demand bribes, so having a card enabled them to travel with less trepidation. Legal registration of savings groups can also increase people’s access to services: Trickle Up’s partner ADEFAD enabled 100% of the savings groups to obtain legal status, which allowed them to access government programmes for vocational trainings, small grants, or loan capital from financial institutions.

Some of Trickle Up’s most successful programme participants will indeed graduate from social protection. But helping ultra-poor families to realize their rights as citizens to access social protection—and helping to build the social connections, knowledge, confidence, and social standing that such access can require—is a major step that cannot be skipped. ‘Push’ efforts like Trickle Up’s must be matched by ‘pull’ efforts on the part of social protection programmes to the ensure inclusion of, and improvements for, the ultra-poor on a much larger scale.

This blog is written by Janet Heisey, Director of Technical and Strategic Alliances at Trickle Up. She’s contemplating graduation from summertime flip flops into Fall fleece, but isn’t sure she’s ready.


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