Committed to helping the world’s poorest lift themselves out of extreme poverty, BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation programmes around the world are quickly adapting in response to COVID-19. Just as our colleagues have done in Bangladesh, most programmes’ activities in other countries have been put on hold. Yet, we continue to provide support for the health and safety of our participants, which are of utmost importance during this time. Our partners are leveraging staff on the ground and connections to existing government programs and services, along with utilizing mass communications to ensure that those most vulnerable to the pandemic have their basic needs met.
BRAC’s comprehensive Graduation programme is designed to engage and improve almost every aspect of a participant’s life with intensive support provided along the way. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 is having a major impact on this, as one of the cornerstones of the approach is the power of human interaction, carried out by our coaches and program staff. Through regular visits and check-ins, coaches deepen the participant’s learning from the programme, help them resolve challenges, manage livelihoods effectively, and adopt positive behaviour to make them more resilient to health and environmental shocks. However, coaches do much more than train participants on how to improve their livelihoods or track their progress over time as they elevate themselves out of extreme poverty. Coaches are a vital lifeline that households depend on as a confidant, a mentor, and a friend in the hardest of times. During unexpected shocks such as those caused by COVID-19, households rely on their coaches more than ever to weather this storm.
In the Philippines, where BRAC UPGI is supporting the integration of existing government social protection programmes in the Graduation programme pilot in Negros Occidental province, we have begun to adapt our approach and reduce face-to-face interactions while still maintaining continued support from coaches, or Graduation Community Facilitators (GCFs). We are doing this by taking advantage of the telecommunications service widely available throughout the Philippines and instituting digital check-ins via phone, SMS text messages, and video where possible, to ensure households are not left behind.
Through the use of digital technology, our coaches are sharing information and tips from local health officials on hygiene, illness, and prevention. This includes easy-to-remember activities for practicing safe behaviors that families can coach each other on, such as social distancing and singing the Happy Birthday song for 20 seconds while washing hands. We are also able to assist households with activating their national health insurance, locating the nearest clinics, and understanding the telltale signs of COVID-19 for which they should seek medical attention. For households we cannot reach virtually, neighbors are checking on others – where movement is allowed – to make sure no one has fallen ill without access to healthcare. Coaches are also now serving as an important linkage between participants and their local governments, known as barangay in the Philippines. If participants receive aid in the form of financial support (Php5,000 -8,000) from the government, coaches record and track this information in order to build on the saving practices taught throughout the programme. And if the participants are eligible but do not receive the aid, coaches notify the local government officials.
Project Coordinator, Marlowe Popes, recognizes that the coming weeks and months will be even more difficult with the closure of most businesses and severe restrictions of movement. “Where possible, we continue the delivery of assets to participants with added health precautions. We believe these livelihoods will both serve as an important cushion now and help them get back on their feet after the quarantine.” This is how we are providing for life under lockdown and beyond.
With existing government social protection initiatives and a strong staff presence (both physical and virtual) maintained on the ground, our Graduation community in the Philippines is already seeing the direct benefits of quick, adapted program interventions. These responses are needed for the health and safety of entire communities, but in looking at one of our pilots halfway across the globe, a path forward is not always clear or easy.
The Early Stages of Planning for an Uncertain Future
In October 2019, BRAC, along with Humanity & Inclusion and the National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda (NUWODU), launched a disability-inclusive Graduation programme to increase the socio-economic empowerment and resilience of ultra-poor households in Western and Northern Uganda. Unsurprisingly, people living in extreme poverty with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 as a particularly marginalized population of the extreme poor who are struggling with the changes and restrictions enforced to prevent further spread. On top of the underlying conditions that put those living with disabilities at a greater risk, attitudinal, environmental, and institutional barriers can make their participation in and benefit from pandemic response even more difficult.
Given the added difficulty in providing necessary support to people with disabilities living in extreme poverty, everything from public health messaging to the access of healthcare facilities must be carefully considered. BRAC Uganda is closely coordinating with the Ministry of Health’s Public Health Emergency Operations Centre to provide up-to-date information on the outbreak and measures undertaken at the national level. To guarantee that all households have access to critical hygiene and health information, community health workers (CHWs) have been designated as essential personnel to go door-to-door (where permitted) in order to make referrals to available clinics and recommend medications for certain households. BRAC has also equipped 50 boda boda (motorbike taxi) drivers with pre-recorded health awareness messages as part of the Ministry’s “Megaphone Blitz” campaign to reach 2.7 million citizens on the outskirts of Kampala. Programme staff from NUWODU are also working tirelessly to safeguard people with disabilities in target sites by sharing contact information of local officials including DPO District Leaders and Chairpersons with hospitals and health posts in order to ensure that persons with disabilities have appropriate healthcare advocates in the wake of the crisis.
CHWs are peer members of the community who have been trained in infection prevention, community knowledge dissemination, and medication disbursement, and are incorporated in BRAC’s programming around the globe including Uganda.
Through these trying times, every member of BRAC and our partner organizations are relentlessly working to respond accurately and promptly to mitigate the impacts of this pandemic. The head office team and newly established COVID Response Team in Bangladesh continues to analyze the situation and review strategies both domestically and around the globe to achieve the most positive outcome in this crisis. BRAC teams around the world are also working to build mid to long term strategies for economic revitalization of the extreme poor considering the fact that the current lockdown situation will continue for some time and has the potential to massively impact economic conditions and programme progress. By planning for an uncertain future now, BRAC is positioning itself to better and more quickly respond to the growing and urgent needs of those most in need and will continue to adapt our programming to ensure no one is left behind, even in the most trying of times.
Julie Kedroske and Dristy Shrestha, BRAC UPGI Technical Advisors, and Bobby Irven, UPGI Communications Officer