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Graduation and Social Protection


Development Pathways

Graduation (noun), the receiving or conferring of an academic degree or diploma.

Graduation is a definitive moment in any student’s trajectory. It is a threshold that, once crossed, is crossed forever. From that moment forward, the student has acquired something that can never be taken away – a degree.

What a peculiar word, then, to use in the context of programmes that aim to take people out of poverty. Why? Because there is no such thing as a definitive exit from poverty. All of us are vulnerable to falling back into poverty at any moment. And for some – indeed the majority of the world’s population – it needs only the smallest jolt to make that ever-permanent risk a horrible reality.

So we need to recognise that so-called ‘graduation’ from poverty is a chimera. It represents a laudable aim. And, for a lucky few, graduation programmes will indeed be a decisive intervention: they will help some people to clear an obstructive hurdle and will put them on the path to a better life. But these people – even these lucky few – will not have crossed a definitive threshold. They will still be in need of support – and that is why it is important to understand the linkages between graduation programmes and social protection.

There is clearly an overlap between the two. But graduation programmes that are offered in isolation do not qualify as social protection. On their own, they are livelihood promotion programmes, pure and simple. What makes them social protection is when they are integrated as one component into a comprehensive national social protection framework, which also provides other types of guarantees and benefits to those who are not in a position to profit from a graduation programme. This would (theoretically at least) be the case where they originated, in Bangladesh, because Bangladesh does offer national programmes to provide unconditional social transfers to the elderly, those with disabilities, widows, etc. They may be imperfect, corrupt, and badly-run, but at least the NGOs that offer livelihood promotion programmes can help those who are less well suited to an asset-based transfer to access their entitlement to a pension.

Offering a livelihood promotion option alongside other social protection interventions thereby overcomes another weakness of such programmes: the temptations to target them at the poorest households, who may not be the most appropriate to maximise the potential benefit from them. Some graduation programmes explicitly exclude the elderly and disabled, while others take the attitude that the only people they would exclude would be the physically bed-ridden. Yet it is clear from qualitative research that one of the main reasons behind those who failed to derive benefit from graduation programmes was that they were unsuited to it from the outset. They had in effect been shoe-horned into an unsuitable intervention, just because they were ultra-poor and therefore deserving of help…and because there was nothing else available to offer them.

So, graduation programmes should only be considered social protection when they are offered as part of a comprehensive portfolio. What is important, then, is to be able to identify those households for whom such livelihood promotion is the most appropriate intervention – in other words, those among the poor and marginalised who are most likely to make a success of an entrepreneurial opportunity. This is precisely why we need to reorient the evaluation of such programmes away from sophisticated and expensive Randomised Control Trials to demonstrate impact, and towards an analysis to determine the characteristics of those who are best pre-disposed to succeed. Simple common sense tells us that these are unlikely to be, for example, single mothers with multiple young children, for whom other types of social protection (e.g. child benefits) might be more appropriate. Whilst there has been some such research (Huda and Simanowitz 2010Kabeer and Huda, 2012), studies of this nature need to be done routinely, with their findings used systematically to improve programme design and implementation.

And even in the case of those to whom graduation programmes do offer a lifeline, we need to recognise that ‘graduation’ from poverty can be as ephemeral as the morning dew, and that they will still need access to other forms of social protection if it evaporates.

This blog is written by Nicholas Freeland, an independent consultant. Nicholas graduated definitively from Cambridge University in 1978; but, in spite of (or perhaps because of) a lengthy subsequent career as a development consultant, he still doesn’t feel that he has graduated from poverty.