A recipient of BRAC’s Special Targeting Ultra Poor program. Photo by: Conor Ashleigh / AusAID / CC BY

The World Bank’s biannual “Poverty and Shared Prosperity” report, released this week, paints an alarming picture of the poverty landscape: We are losing ground in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere at a concerning rate.

While the global number of people living on less than $1.90 per day is down to 675,000, progress has slowed — and arguably regressed — in countries facing conflict, disasters, poor governance, and high population growth. If we look at poverty through a nonmonetary lens — for example, the social infrastructure of health and education systems — there is cause for concern.

Coupled with World Bank’s new human capital index, “Poverty and Shared Prosperity” demonstrates that despite remarkable strides in poverty reduction, there is a bleak picture below the surface. When we disaggregate the numbers and deepen our understanding of the lives of the poorest people, there’s a clear need for new energy and creativity for multidimensional solutions.

We need holistic solutions tailored for the poorest people in order to meet Sustainable Development Goal 1 to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.

Grounding our action in a nuanced picture of extreme poverty is essential. We cannot make progress without first understanding the problem and grasping why the last mile will be so hard to address. For real and durable change, countries need programs that confront poverty in all its complexity and move beyond income measures to track whether interventions are working. The graduation approach, for example, measures multiple poverty indicators that are context-specific to people and communities.

Implemented by BRAC in 14 countries, with partners running programs in more than 100 others, rigorous research on the graduation approach shows 90 percent of participants stay on a positive economic trajectory years after they complete the program.

Poverty indicators for the graduation approach may include the type of roof on a participant’s house, number of meals each family member eats a day, whether they have a latrine, the number of dependents, and several other characteristics. By looking at wealth indicators that are context-specific, we can measure their progress, and more importantly, understand and base our actions on what is working.

What does this mean for human lives? Say a woman named Rifah earns the equivalent of 50 cents per day and has one daughter and no husband. Her neighbor, Sadia, earns a $1 per day but cares for a disabled parent and her brother’s five children. Sadia may make more money, but because of her dependents, she would be worse-off than Rifah. The graduation approach works with each participant to monitor her improvements based on her life and context — not just her income. The approach is shown to have durable success because of this nuanced approach.

The “Poverty and Shared Prosperity” report calls for collective action to increase the income of the bottom 40 percent of people. To do this effectively, governments need programs specifically developed and targeted at the lowest subset of the extreme poor. These citizens, most often women with children, must have a combination of services tailored to their specific needs. This could include health, education, financial access, livelihood support, nutrition, and access to clean water, all with a focus on connecting the extreme poor to the social and government services that often miss them.

Delivering these complex programs will require governments, with support from donors, to structure their existing services to meet the needs of their poorest people.

As part of its national strategy for poverty reduction, the government of the Philippines is developing a graduation program administered by its department of labor and employment. With an aim to create sustainable livelihoods and build resilience, the government is combining existing social assistance efforts with additional livelihood support and other complementary services tailored to its poorest people. By targeting participants of existing social welfare programming, the department will sync up and expand services to better address the comprehensive needs of its poorest communities.

Extreme poverty is down globally — but we are stalled in the most challenging places where conflict, disasters, and other challenges persist. The World Bank’s call for an investment in human capital coupled with more accurate indicators of measuring extreme poverty is a step in the right direction. But if we fail to work with all actors and do not tailor our solutions to meet the evolving needs of people living in ultra and extreme poverty, we risk deepening social and economic divides across communities and countries.

About the author

  • Lindsay Coates

    Lindsay Coates is managing director of BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative. Lindsay leads BRAC’s advocacy agenda to leave no one behind using effective, innovative, and multidimensional approaches to change the lives of the most marginalized people. She is also responsible for its learning agenda and technical assistance activities worldwide in the 10+ countries where BRAC is currently implementing or assisting with graduation programs.