Important development programmes such as microfinance often do not reach the very poorest households. A new set of initiatives, called Graduation programmes, have targeted these very poor households. Their objective is to graduate them out of poverty in a sustainable manner and make them resilient so they do not fall back into poverty. The main approach is to develop the income earning of households through microenterprise, usually more than one.
Most of these programmes target women and use some form of asset transfer or asset subsidy, and perhaps stipends for a fixed period. In addition to this material support they often help clients to strengthen their social network and get the community involved in supporting their clients in working towards resilient graduation out of poverty. Typically programmes expect to work with clients for two years before they are ready to graduate.
In addition some programmes provide psychological support to these poor women who are often marginalised socially and often have very little confidence to engage even in petty business. Bu not all programmes include this component. The question is should they?
How important is psychological support such as life planning, confidence building and strengthening social awareness in helping poor women to graduate in a resilient way? Surprisingly, no research has actually addressed this question. It is a development frontier and we do not know for sure what the answer is.
This research will address this question through research on the first and biggest graduation programme which is in Bangladesh and run by an NGO called BRAC. Their programme is called 'Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction' (CFPR) and it has graduated over 400,000 ultra poor women since it started in 2002. This programme provides material, social and psychological support. There has been a lot of economic and social research on this programme and almost all the evidence shows that it is effective in bringing poor women and their households out of poverty and that is also efficient in terms of cost. However none of this research has really focused on the relative importance of the different inputs -material social and psychological. In particular the psychological dimension has had no research. We do not know whether these softer inputs provided through informal counselling and through confidence building workshops make any difference.
The research will take advantage of a large data set that has been collected over four rounds since 2002 on economic and social dimensions of change in client households. But it will generate a new set of data, on the psychological support provided because there is not any existing data to work with.
The research will refine an existing questionnaire based upon methods used in social psychology and canvass it with 1000 households that also took part in the four rounds of economic and social data collection. Half of these were in the CFPR and half are a control group who did not receive programme benefits but are also very poor. The questionnaire will be carefully field-tested before use.
After collecting this new data the researchers will run a series of statistical tests to try and establish which components of the programme contribute most. It will focus especially on the question of whether the psychological inputs are adding value by strengthening or speeding up progress out of poverty. The results will be shared with groups of the clients to provide some ground-truthing of the analytic findings. The results will also be shared broadly within the national and international development community.
The primary beneficiaries will be the ultra poor households for whom graduation programmes are designed. The objective is to try and improve design by assessing the inputs provided and the end result should be inputs being more appropriate than they might otherwise have been. This may be relatively easier to accomplish in BRAC itself but BRAC's donors, including DFID who are the major funders of the CFPR programme, have a strong funding and advocacy role on working with the extreme poor beyond Bangladesh. Results from this research, if convincing to DFID, may be an important contribution to ultra poor programmes in Bangladesh where they support several initiatives beyond CFPR. DFID are also uniquely well-placed to bring interesting and policy relevant research results to the wider development community. The international donor community are deeply concerned about results-based management and the cost effectiveness of aid both for their own efficiency as public bodies but also to defend aid budgets in hard times -working with ultra poor households in poor countries is one area where evidence-based improvement may be a substantial argument in support of retaining development funding. Academic beneficiaries, as discussed, will include some of the most important figures in development impact evaluation who have engaged extensively with graduation programmes. Graduation programmes are likely to grow in number and size across the developing world and may well have a clearly defined role in the post-2015 agenda. If this 'proof of concept' work is successful it could have a significant influence on the global evolution of graduation programmes.