Adapting the Graduation approach for urban poverty

July 13, 2021

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt economies around the globe, the number of people living in urban poverty is increasing at an alarming rate. Urban contexts present unique challenges to poverty that require contextualised, adaptable interventions. Learn how BRAC is helping communities living in urban poverty address these challenges.

COVID-19 has forced millions more people across the world into poverty, affecting largely informal workers who represent 50–80% of employment in many urban centres. According to the World Bank’s Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report 2020, those who have seen their incomes fall below $1.90 per day are more likely to be “urban, better educated, and less likely to work in agriculture than those living in extreme poverty before COVID-19.”

Read more: Dry fish, betel leaf and business: Three women challenging poverty in Bangladesh

Despite perceived benefits of cities such as dynamic markets, transportation networks, and diversity of employment options, urban contexts present unique challenges to poverty that require contextualised, adaptable interventions. This can include hurdles such as fragmented access to basic services, high degrees of mobility, poor sanitary conditions, and exorbitant rental costs or precarious living arrangements in illegal settlements and resource-deprived slums.

Though urban poverty and rural poverty may differ, the core injustice is the same: a life without the resources and tools needed to meet one’s basic needs. This injustice prompted BRAC to bring the Graduation approach, which was developed and implemented in rural Bangladesh with incredible success, to the urban slums of Dhaka in 2010. It was this programme in 2016 that Nurjahan enrolled in and through which she changed her life and her family’s as well.

“We now live in a proper brick house with two rooms.” Photo: BRAC/Pronob Ghosh

As a part of the programme, Nurjahan received seed capital, three days worth of training on financial management and business techniques, and one-on-one regular coaching from an assigned mentor. With this “big push,” Nurjahan’s beauty and fabric enterprise began to flourish, empowering her to take steps to better her family’s life.

Read more: A shoulder to lean on: How coaching enables success in poverty graduation

Her enrolment in the programme also allowed her to begin breaking the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty – Nurjahan (who only received a basic education) is proud to watch her daughter complete her undergraduate studies and her three younger sons excel in their education.

Distinguishing the challenges of urban poverty from rural poverty

A cornerstone of the Graduation approach is prioritising adaptation in the face of diverse contexts. Urban poverty may shift dramatically even from one section of a city to another just blocks away. That said, there are common characteristics of urban poverty that the Graduation approach aims to address by applying its four key elements of meeting basic needs, income generation, financial support and savings, and social empowerment.

One major characteristic that differentiates the living experience of urban poverty from rural poverty is a high level of transience and ruptured social ties. Unstable housing conditions caused by living in tenements, squatter dwellings, or excessive rents contribute to frequent migration.

Graduation programmes strengthen social capital through community ties and resources as well as government accountability through civic engagement platforms. Graduation coaches – a critical component of the Graduation approach – improve social ties and community engagement through forming linkages that foster connections with local power structures, government agencies, and local municipal authorities. In BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative’s (UPGI) partnership with the Government of Rwanda, volunteer caseworkers seen as peer role models in the community acted as coaches to strengthen social ties and access to government officials.

Another common concern is a lack of access to basic services, particularly health and sanitation.

“There was drain water seeping into our little room. There was no clean water to give to my children.” Photo: BRAC/Pronob Ghosh

Adapting Graduation programmes for urban contexts during COVID-19

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, BRAC has been continuing to implement contextualised Graduation programming globally. BRAC UPGI is working with the State Government of Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board to increase access to sanitation services and improve health and hygiene for households resettled from urban slums near encroaching bodies of water and other disaster-prone environments.

People living in urban poverty also struggle with unique financial burdens. For example, many urban households encounter high rates of debt due to relatively high costs of living. While access to formal or informal savings mechanisms may exist, they are often not utilised or have barriers to entry in enrolment requirements which include lack of identification, collateral, minimum deposits, and a fixed address.

Read more: Liberia, Class of ‘21: Women take a big step out of extreme poverty

In partnership with the Government of the Philippines, Graduation programme participants learnt how to spot and avoid aggressive lending schemes and predators through financial literacy and budget management training and also received access to micro savings accounts to reduce future need. This resulted in reduced indebtedness for programme participants.

Urban populations are heavily reliant upon daily wage labour within city limits for unskilled or low skilled labour. This makes predictable incomes and savings extremely difficult, yet more dangerous in an urban context with high living costs. Urban Graduation programmes aim to link households to entrepreneurship, formal employment, and vocational training to counter high rates of informality.

Reaching the “new poor” in Bangladesh through BRAC’s post-COVID Urban Graduation redesign

During COVID-19, the situation in Dhaka is critical. Lockdowns and food insecurity have pushed once thriving households into “new poor” status and survival mode. In 2020, in collaboration across Ultra-Poor Graduation programme (UPG) and the Urban Development Programme (UDP), BRAC began strategising a redesign to meet the contextualised needs of people living in urban poverty during COVID-19, beginning with a pilot including 5,000 participants in urban settings.

“Keeping in mind the diversity of urban environments, there has been much work in creating robust targeting methods, identifying asset and cash based livelihood options, and supporting struggling livelihoods in order to create a highly contextualised programme specific to the needs of those living in urban poverty,” said Moklesur Rahman, Senior Manager of Operations for the Ultra-Poor Graduation.

Given its emphasis on adaptability and contextualisation to household realities, the Graduation approach can be an effective tool against rising tides of urban poverty. Leveraging tailored holistic interventions to respond to unique stressors and barriers, provides comprehensive support and a viable safety net to help households thrive instead of merely just surviving the challenges of the urban poverty landscape.


Lauren Whitehead is Director of Technical Services, BRAC UPGI. Jake Konig is Content Development Associate, BRAC UPGI.

Cover photo: BRAC/Pronob Ghosh


In 2016, BRAC founded the Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative (UPGI) to focus on scaling the Graduation approach through systems change via government programmes and policies in order to empower a greater number of people to escape extreme poverty long-term. UPGI works with global, regional and national stakeholders to influence programmes and policies to meet the multidimensional needs of people in extreme poverty. UPGI provides technical advisory services to strengthen the capacity of governments, peer organisations, civil society actors, and donors to implement the Graduation approach, and promotes policy recommendations at the global, regional, and national level that are informed by our learning and evidence.

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