Can extreme poverty be subdued before 2030?

February 4, 2016 by



Poverty is opportunity. Sure, one can take a kaleidoscopic peek into the word’s denotation, but poverty instigates and propels action intended for positive change. Today, around 700 million people are thought to live in extreme poverty, defined as surviving on less than USD 1.90 a day. In 1990, that statistic was more than 1.9 billion. There is still an awful lot to be done for poverty to be ‘eradicated’, but the number of people having access to a more dignified life may rise – be that education, water, basic health services, food and toilets to name a few.

But is that enough? No. In a monetary economy, one’s best chance is to be able to create value, no matter how small. This is elementary – one must have something to sell which the world is interested in buying. That is how microfinance came about to promote entrepreneurship in poor people. But in the 1990s it became clear that microfinance, then the most exciting tool in development economics, was not reaching the very poorest, recalls Sir Fazle, BRAC’s founder. This group (ultra poor) who are predominantly women, routinely go hungry, have low to no assets, few skills, mostly landless, are illiterate and with children. They are even labeled as hopeless by their own community members. Take the following case.

In a rural northwestern Bangladeshi village, cancer claimed a man’s life some ten years ago. He left behind a bereaving Shamsunnahar and their two children (aged five and three at the time), without any financial security. The absence of financial muscle deprived the man from medical treatment in the first place.

Shamsunnahar became a daily wage labourer. She started working as a house help and also worked in the paddy fields for sustenance. Starvation was a frequent occurrence and a modest intake of nutritious diet for her children was a constant long shot. The seasons of winter and rain would make a travesty out of the haystack roof of her house. Interestingly, amidst all privation, Shamsunnahar chose to be wise and stood resolute on continuing her children’s education.

In 2002, BRAC was offering a newly developed programme targeted for cases as above. Women from the poorest households are offered the opportunity to take part in the programme. Shamsunnahar signed up.

For people like Shamsunnahar, savings for future investment was circumstantially near-impossible as daily income was exchanged for daily necessities, healthcare and other basic needs. The programme’s ’graduation approach’ particularly addressed this challenge. She was supported with full asset grants (livestock), life skill and enterprise development training, subsistence allowance, tailor made healthcare and community support.

On 9 December 2015, the International Growth Centre (IGC) at London School of Economics published a research paper on the impact of BRAC’s intervention. It was the result of a seven-year-long study on 21,000 households, including 6,700 ultra poor households and 15,100 from other wealth classes. The research showed that BRAC’s one-shot, ‘big-push’ intervention targeting the ultra poor with assets and skills can lift extreme households onto a more sustainable path out of

At the time of interviewing Shamsunnahar in late 2015, she mentioned that she was standing for an election for school community member (independent committee overlooking the welfare of students and the school itself). By then, with support from BRAC, she had already leased land where she was growing vegetables. She uses the produce to feed her own family as well as sell for profit. Gone are the days of ignominious wardrobe when she tore portions of her own cloth to patch her son’s trouser, for which he was derided by the locals. Now Shamsunnahar is a popular tailor in her village also training poor women for free so they too can become independent like her.

Shamsunnahar's closest apprentices are her own children.

Shamsunnahar’s closest apprentices are her own children.

Pursuant to orthodox narrative structure, the author owes you a customary ending, which ends this piece on a high note. But I will digress. IGC’s research also showed that on average, for every £1 invested in the programme there was a return of £5.40. There is no beating around the bush, but if you are convinced about our work, then please consider making a donation. If you seek further reinforcement, perhaps you could consider reading what the Economist and New York Times columnist Nick Kristof had to say about BRAC’s ‘graduation approach’, which is being replicated around the world.


Jonathan Das is a senior communications officer at BRAC Communications.