Last week I attended the Centre for Social Protection conference on Graduation and Social Protection, co-hosted by the Ministry of Local Government of the Government of Rwanda, with support from Irish Aid, UNICEF and DFID. I would like to share some of my personal reflections on the conference. They are by no means representative of the number of issues that were discussed, and I recommend reading Stephen Devereux's comprehensive ‘Learning Insights and Action Points’ on the conference website.
Graduation describes the moment when beneficiaries of a transfer programme (cash, food or assets) pass a threshold and manage to sustain a certain level of wellbeing over a period of time after exiting the programme. The rationale is that the transfers and complementary interventions (skills training, microloans) will allow beneficiaries to move out of poverty by increasing and maintaining their income generating potential and productivity and become resilient to shocks. The concept was pioneered by BRAC in Bangladesh and has been adopted by programmes such as the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) in Ethiopia and Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (VUP) in Rwanda.
Here are my take-away points from the conference:
1. Beneficiaries are often still poor after graduating
Despite some success stories, most 'graduates' are still poor after graduation. Maybe they managed to move from extreme poverty into moderate poverty, or from food insecurity into food sufficiency. But they are still poor and in many cases they might fall back because their context hasn't changed. They are still vulnerable to shocks, they might still have limited access to markets and basic services and in most cases after leaving the programme they no longer have access to a social safety net.
Taking into account the limitations of any single programme to address the multiple causes of poverty, maybe we shouldn't punch above our weight and claim that livelihood promotion programmes can achieve sustainable graduation? Maybe we need to be more realistic, and call programmatic thresholds 'exits from the programme', rather than 'graduation thresholds', as the VUP programme in Rwanda already does.
2. Systemic approach: yes, but let's not overburden social protection
The challenge seems to lie in drawing a line between where social protection ends and where 'other' interventions start, e.g. supplying basic services, facilitating access to labour markets, promoting inclusive economic growth. As one participant said, "social protection cannot become the solution for all of governments' failures". It is one part of the graduation puzzle and incomplete without the rest. We need to figure out how the different pieces fit together.
This line however should not in itself represent a point of no return, when people graduate permanently out of social protection. It rather demarcates responsibilities and highlights complementarities between programmes and sectors. Social protection is required on a permanent basis to help people manage the range of risks they encounter throughout a lifetime.
3. Learning lessons..
...across actors: The presentations covered a range of different approaches, from small NGO-led pilots to nation-wide government programmes across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Important lessons can be drawn from these cases on what works and what doesn't. NGOs can test different models, provide more extensive, individualised support to beneficiaries, even if only on a short-term basis. Governments are looking at more long-term and scalable approaches that are financially sustainable and reach a larger group of beneficiaries. Pooling the experiences and evidence and sharing lessons will help to design programmes that improve the chances of poor households to climb up the ladder.
...within programmes: As one participant said "Let's focus on doing it well. Let's focus on getting programme delivery right, on time, as promised." Delivering a transfer programme in itself is already quite challenging. One consultant working on the PSNP in Ethiopia told me that at the higher policy level people are discussing a comprehensive social protection framework, whilst at the district level there isn't enough capacity to allow the programme to work as it is. Comprehensive approaches are important, but maybe we need to focus on delivering well first, before jumping ahead and complicating things?
...from beneficiaries: One panellist said "No offence to all you academics, but we do a lot of thinking for people who live poverty 24 hours a day". Much of our discussions focus on how and who to target, what kind of support to give and where to set the benchmark. Whilst these are all important issues that are part of the reality of programmes, it often distracts from focusing on the beneficiaries and understanding the range of challenges they face every day to 'graduate out of poverty'.
Thanks to the organisers and participants for sharing their experiences and making this conference possible!