COVID-19: A UNIVERSAL HUMANITARIAN CRISIS OF CATASTROPHIC PROPORTION

Forced closures and lockdowns around the world to prevent the highly contagious Coronavirus (COVID-19) from spreading have exacerbated pre-existing global issues and contributed to new ones, including a major economic shock that could unravel recent progress on eliminating poverty in all forms.

Over 700m people are living in extreme poverty around the world and it is estimated that 50m more will fall into extreme poverty by the end of 2020. For many of us dedicated to eradicating extreme poverty, these estimates have been demoralizing. 

Those living in extreme poverty are the most affected and most at risk population in regards to COVID-19, having limited access to health care, food, clean water, steady income, and public services, and often an inability to practice social distancing. Understanding the complex and evolving challenges the extreme poor face and designing programs with them in mind has never been more important or urgent.

OUR RESPONSE

At BRAC, an organization committed to helping millions of people become more resilient to shocks and create pathways out of extreme poverty through our Ultra-Poor Graduation approach, we are standing with and working with those most affected and most at risk of being left behind to face the ensuing chaos.

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We urge major global actors, including governments, multilateral institutions, donors, NGOs, and policymakers, to develop responses that are
adaptive to the evolving landscape and increasing fragility of those most at risk, immediate but developed for long-term impact, comprehensive to meet multidimensional needs, and designed with the poorest in mind.

COVID-19 RESPONSE AND RECOVERY

Leaders are issuing emergency orders and policies to meet the increasing fragility of people around the world affected by the pandemic and economic shutdown. BRAC applauds the additional funding committed and adjustments made to meet the growing needs of at-risk populations in these trying times. We call on these global actors to put in place mechanisms that ensure funding and policies reach the extreme poor who are being pushed deeper into poverty during this pandemic. 

Adapting BRAC’s Graduation Approach in Response to COVID

BRAC is swiftly adapting its Graduation approach in Bangladesh and throughout its global programs to address the increasing vulnerability of those living in extreme poverty and ensure their basic needs are met during the pandemic and its aftermath. Though most of our regular Graduation activities have been suspended for existing programs, Graduation staff around the world continue to support participating households to help meet their basic needs, including continuing to provide cash transfers and sharing information and resources from government officials on health, hygiene, sanitation, and tips for prevention like proper hand-washing. 

VSSCs are instrumental in promoting social integration of UPG participants in their communities and mobilizing resources to provide support. The committee serves as a platform for participants to build social networks and leverage community ties, and continues to exist well beyond the graduation life cycle. The program staff are maintaining regular communication with the VSSCs to ensure that the committees are delivering awareness raising information, providing emergency support and advocating at local levels to avail government support or relief support from other sources. So far, a total of 2681 VSSCs are contributing to BRAC’s Covid-19 response initiative in 2560 villages in 44 districts with the support from the UPG program.

BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative (UPGI) also works to bridge the major health-related gaps that exist for the poorest by connecting individuals to available government services (via social protection programming) through our Graduation approach. We have found that layering our program interventions on top of existing programs and resources is the most strategic investment for both governments and the long-term benefits of extreme poor households. Graduation can, and has, enhanced these existing investments and provides further opportunities for the extreme poor to have their most basic needs met, whether it be more frequent healthcare visits or access to a national insurance plan.

Thus far, 151 country governments have adopted or adjusted social protection and labor market policies in response to COVID-19. Social protection programs often support greater access to health care services and include the provision of cash transfers and food aid, which has proven to increase resilience and prevent poverty for those enrolled. Countries that have effective health and social protection programs in place that provide universal coverage are better prepared to respond to crisis and recover swiftly. Expanding social protection programs to ensure they meet the multidimensional needs of those in extreme poverty is critical. 

As COVID drives millions more into poverty, we view Graduation as playing a critical role in building resilience among communities and promoting long-term and large-scale recovery. We have seen holistic Graduation programs to be uniquely useful and powerful tools to reknit social fabric in recovery and for resilience. 

BRAC’s Graduation approach can support efforts to expand social protection programs in order to meet needs of those living in extreme poverty and help countries recover more swiftly because it:

1. Includes vulnerability and poverty assessments at the local level for different demographics to better identify who is among that population and their specific and evolving needs. 

2. Is comprehensive and designed to meet the multidimensional and long-term needs of those living in extreme poverty, tackling a range of issues through a sequenced set of interventions. 

3. Is elastic and adaptive to respond to the worsening pre-existing issues and surfacing of new issues in this volatile environment with rigorous learning and evaluation constantly feeding into how the program needs to be adjusted. 

4. Is inclusive of the local government and the local community who can provide information about those living in extreme poverty and their needs in that demographic to inform national policies, and those policies need to be more effectively transferred to the local governments.

Building Resilience Post-COVID-19

Graduation is proven to provide the “big push” needed to help the poorest “graduate” from destitution into sustainable livelihoods, largely by fostering self-dependence and resilience before disaster hits. Through holistic coaching on livelihoods, financial, and life skills, BRAC’s Graduation programming has helped more than two million households develop sustainable livelihoods and lift themselves from poverty. Remarkably, 95 percent of graduates stay on an upward economic trajectory years after the official program ends.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that graduation programs can help the poorest withstand and recover more rapidly from the economic shocks that often result from natural disasters. In August 2015, one year into the 24-month program, violence began in the northern part of the country. Inflation rates skyrocketed and severe food shortages led to a state of emergency. Yet despite these economic shocks felt by others in the community, 97 percent of the 240 women in the program were still able to increase their consumption thanks to the resources, assets, and skills they obtained during the program. Their families benefited too; participants’ children were 53.3 percent less likely to be underweight compared to those of women not in the program. These South Sudanese women went from the poorest people in their communities to small business owners able to withstand the country’s economic volatility.

The key lesson here is that countries best able to diffuse the adverse impact of crisis are those that already have in place solid social protection programs that can act as a social buffer and economic stabilizer. 


Given the rising number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the declaration of a local General Quarantine in the Philippines pilot location of Negros Occidental, the Department of Labor & Employment (DOLE) Graduation Pilot in Negros Occidental suspended all field activities effective March 16, 2020 through at least April 2020. All field staff have moved to remote work, engaged in a variety of activitie
s to ensure the welfare of households and staff alike is prioritized while pilot progress is maintained as conceivable for the benefit of participating households. For the full details of program updates, explore our up-to-date Philippines COVID-19 bulletin.

Universal crisis requires a unified approach

To expand social protection programs and meet the complex needs of those living in extreme poverty, there must be enhanced coordination at every level – from global to municipal. NGOs, governments, donors, and businesses must work together to leverage existing programming, incorporate local knowledge and connections, and ensure resources are distributed effectively and reach the poorest. Without a unified approach that exceeds immediate response and looks to the long-term, we risk millions more people becoming stuck in extreme poverty without the resources or support to overcome major shocks like Coronavirus.

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