The poor are invisible
Working with women living in extreme poverty around the world, I learned right away that they and their families are invisible even to their own neighbors. And they know it. It’s not surprising. How often does each of us turn away from people asking for help on the streets of Washington, D.C., where I live, let alone those living in extreme poverty in developing countries around the globe? This is just one of the many cruel aspects of ultra-poverty; those afflicted by it are often rendered invisible — to neighbors, distant policymakers, and nearly everyone in between.
This is why BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative is committed to making every single person visible, particularly to those who decide how financial aid and social resources are spent. For decades, the global extreme poverty rate fell rapidly, from 36 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2015. This progress sparked optimism that we might soon remove extreme poverty from the face of the earth, but this optimism is now waning. As the percent of people living in extreme poverty has declined overall, the poorest of this group, the ultra-poor, have remained trapped, and remained invisible, lacking access to even the structures designed to include them.
The World Bank’s 2018 Poverty and Prosperity report warns that to bring extreme poverty below 3 percent (it’s standard for eradication) by 2030, the world’s poorest countries must grow at a rate that far surpasses their historical experience. Even if just 4 percent of the world’s population remains below the threshold in 2030, this will be 340 million people, more than the current population of the United States — hardly a footnote or a rounding error. This is unacceptable from a moral, rights-based standpoint. It is also an inefficient use of global human potential, creating less opportunity and progress for us all.
“This is unacceptable from a moral, rights-based standpoint.”
BRAC developed the Graduation approach for the poorest, those who traditional development interventions often fail to reach. We advocate for the understanding of the microeconomic and psychological reality of what it means to be ultra-poor and point to an emerging set of scalable, science-based solutions that can break this poverty trap. Graduation programs are holistic and participants are connected to basic health care, livelihood and financial skills trainings, and receive personal coaching to instill confidence and hope. The hope is key. After a lifetime of invisibility, an economic inclusion program must not only provide access to previously inaccessible markets but also prove to the participant that they can be seen and build a better future.
In a chapter in the recently published book “Leave No One Behind: Time for Specifics on the Sustainable Development Goals” by the Brookings Institution, I presented ways to tackle ultra-poverty through the emerging “science of hope,” which posits that when coupled with skills and material support, an injection of well-founded hope and optimism into the lives of the ultra-poor can break the poverty trap. A growing body of evidence suggests that programs activating people’s sense of self-worth lead to improvements in employment, earnings, mental health, political awareness and women’s influence and empowerment in the household. A very smart man and BRAC’s founder Sir Fazle Abed once observed, “Poverty is not just poverty of money or income. We also see a poverty of self-esteem, hope, opportunity and freedom. People trapped in a cycle of destitution often don’t realize their lives can be changed for the better through their own activities. Once they understand that, it’s like a light gets turned on.” The ultra-poor must be made visible and a priority to policymakers, governments and international development organizations. Only through this way can we instill hope and end extreme poverty.
Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.
Lindsay Coates, Managing Director of BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative (UPGI)
Lindsay leads efforts to place the Graduation approach as a key driver to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 1. UPGI advocates for a global shift toward use of the Graduation approach, to lift the world’s poorest into sustainable livelihoods. It works closely with country governments and NGOs to adopt and implement quality, scalable Graduation programs. Before joining BRAC, Lindsay served as the president of InterAction, where she oversaw management and institutional outreach to the organization’s members and partners.