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As the economic impact of COVID-19 threatens food security globally, evidence-based interventions that are proven to build resilience in the face of extreme shocks are needed more than ever. Nomita’s story shows how the Graduation approach provides the tools and resources that are crucial in these difficult times.
The public health impact of COVID-19 has been devastating, taking the lives of over one million people globally. As time passes, the global community is becoming increasingly concerned about the next crisis: the economic disaster of COVID-19. Lockdowns in low to lower-middle income countries are causing massive shocks to already fragile economies.
According to new data by UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme, COVID-19 threatens to push 47 million more women and girls into poverty by the end of 2020, which could unravel years of progress in working to eradicate poverty and accomplish Sustainable Development Goal 1.
In response to this humanitarian catastrophe, governments have enacted an unprecedented number of social protection programmes to meet the basic needs of the world’s vulnerable people. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Olivier De Schutter, highlighted that the existing social protection systems do not hold up to human rights scrutiny, and are maladapted, short-term, reactive, and inattentive to realities of those living in extreme poverty. The World Bank Managing Director of Development Policy and Partnerships, Mari Pangestu, commented on the need for strong leadership in the face of interconnected food security challenges during her opening remarks at the Food Security Roundtable: Strengthening Food Security in 2020 and Beyond.
Global food security is emerging as one of the biggest threats to the world’s most vulnerable people, more than six months after the pandemic started. An estimated 135 million people faced life-threatening food insecurity in 2019. With the impact of COVID-19, that figure is projected to double in 2020.
The first COVID-19 famines are beginning to grip parts of Yemen, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, endangering the lives of millions of women, men, and children. The staggering nature of the estimated impact that COVID-19 will have on food insecurity makes it difficult to comprehend the human toll of such a catastrophe. However, those millions are made up of individuals, and one of those individuals is Nomita. Nomita lives in Satkhira, Bangladesh and is a mother of two children.
Before the pandemic, the wage Nomita’s husband earned as a day labourer was not enough to meet the basic needs of the family of four. Any income was going towards the next meal, and their household – which was located in Bangladesh’s most disaster-prone area – was one shock away from severe malnutrition or other life threatening risks.
A countrywide lockdown halted the economy, and Nomita’s husband, along with millions of others in the informal economy, lost work. It appeared that Nomita’s family was going to become a statistic among the millions pushed into extreme poverty and life-threatening food insecurity. Globally, 10,000 additional children under five years old are projected to die per month in 2020 due to pandemic-linked nutritional issues.
However, that was not the case for Nomita’s family. In 2019, Nomita joined BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation (UPG) programme in Bangladesh, which is designed to help people build sustainable livelihoods and create a pathway out of extreme poverty, by providing them with productive assets and skills training in business, finances, life, and health along with ongoing mentorship. To date, the UPG programme in Bangladesh has helped more than two million households – or nine million people – lift themselves from extreme poverty.
Not only was Nomita’s livelihood continuing to feed and support her own family, but she was also able to provide fresh food to her community.
As a participant, Nomita received business skills training as she grew her new beef fattening livelihood, critical life skills training, and support from a coach who guided her along the way. A few months into the programme, Nomita had diversified her business to include selling other livestock and vegetables, and she was able to purchase more land. As Nomita continued to improve the overall standard of living for her household, COVID-19 reached Bangladesh.
The Graduation approach is designed to enable participants to absorb shocks and pivot in the face of unforeseen circumstances. With help from her coach, Nomita was able to take advantage of her diversified livelihoods and shift to prioritising the cultivation and selling of leafy vegetables to local bazaars as lockdowns closed grocery stores—not only was Nomita’s livelihood continuing to feed and support her own family, but she was also able to provide fresh food to her community.
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Additionally, Nomita’s coach helped her learn about digital currency and connect to government support systems through the Graduation programme. When the pandemic was at its worst, Nomita was able to receive a digital cash transfer of BDT 1500 from the government as a needed safety net. Through her life skills training, Nomita also learned critical hygienic practices such as proper hand-washing technique. She was able to pass on this potentially lifesaving knowledge to her family to protect them from the virus.
COVID-19 continues to threaten food security and economic stability of millions of people like Nomita, and it is critical to put into place rights-based social protection programmes that prioritise the immediate and long-term needs of the world’s most vulnerable people. The Graduation approach is a holistic programme that attends to all facets of a person’s life, and is designed to build resilience in the face of shocks. Nomita is the face of resilience, and with support from the Graduation approach, she stabilised her livelihood and is able to put food on her family’s table and continue on her path out of poverty and into a brighter future.
Jake Konig is a Hilton Fellow, BRAC UPGI.