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This is the last in a series of posts from Saman Nizami about her experiences and observations while interning for BRAC’s “Targeting the Ultra-Poor” program in Bangladesh. You can read her previous posts in the series, A Tough Graduation, part I and part II.

There is much to explore in BRAC’s innovative Targeting the Ultra Poor (TUP) program, given its comprehensive approach towards breaking this vicious poverty cycle for hundreds of thousands of ultra-poor households.  In my previous post, we discussed the healthcare and social development aspects of the program.  We saw how these two components empower women in their communities and households and help them lead healthy lives. In this post, I’ll discuss the final two aspects of financial discipline and the subsistence allowance.

Financial discipline

As I mentioned earlier, microfinance can’t be deemed to be a solution for these ultra-poor women. Since these women were engaged with distress occupations (e.g. domestic servant, begging, etc.) to secure sufficient food to sustain their families on a day-to-day basis, the circumstances inhibited the development of their financial dexterity. These women were intimidated merely by the prospect of taking a loan and could not contemplate saving some of their scant income as a safety-net. As a result, I noticed that the majority of the new TUP recruits were unable to articulate their investment plans for the future due to the lack of training, experience, and confidence.

BRAC helps them achieve financial literacy and assists them with building their savings. Through training and experience in micro-enterprise development and financial planning, the graduates actively participated in the credit market with microfinance loans and successfully managed their portfolios. These women took loans for enterprise investments, house repair, or incidences like their children’s weddings, but not for survival. Additionally, nearly all the graduates I met were building their savings with BRAC, and some with multiple sources.

Thus, giving them opportunities to hone their financial acumen is vital in preparing them to take on microfinance loans and reap the benefits from other conventional development programs.

A snapshot of a Village Organization (VO) Microfinance meeting I observed in Rangpur, Bangladesh
A snapshot of a Village Organization (VO) Microfinance meeting I observed in Rangpur, Bangladesh

Subsistence Allowance

Some may think that the subsistence allowance (i.e. a cash transfer) is simply equivalent to traditional charity. However, in the situation of these women, who are suffering from dismal poverty and hunger, it serves as a buffer until they are able to stand on their own feet. These subsistence allowances serve as a means to ensure food security for the women and their families. It allows them to focus on their enterprise development and eat three times a day, effectively preventing their families from begging, borrowing, or taking on distress work.

These women can’t benefit from any initial investment if they’re suffering from malnutrition and hunger. Thus, it becomes critical to fulfill their nutritional needs in the initial untenable stages of the program until they establish their micro-enterprises and achieve self-sufficiency.

My final thoughts….

Spending time with these women and observing their challenges (and progress) is when I realized that these components may not be effective individually, but rather the optimal impact is created by addressing all of these areas collectively. Given where these women lie on the poverty scale, if you only address one of the problems, they may inevitably falter in other areas, ultimately reducing the benefits of the intervention. These various support mechanisms are important to the initiative because many different aspects of a woman’s life are intertwined and are thus mutually dependent on each other for strong impact. For example, Tasmeena’s health condition needs to be conducive for managing her economic activities. Similarly, Masooda needed to feel empowered as she may have lacked the confidence and motivation to build her livelihood if she remained isolated in her community.

Nasreen (TUP 2010), Shaheena (TUP 2010), and I in the Sirajganj district of Bangladesh.
Nasreen (TUP 2010), Shaheena (TUP 2010), and I in the Sirajganj district of Bangladesh.

As a result of the program’s holistic approach, a substantial number of the graduates I met had the confidence and know-how to expand their enterprises, to make critical decisions for the well being of their families, to provide healthy environments for their families, to establish a support network in their communities, and to promote their rights. Consequently, these women were equipped with the right skills to participate in and benefit from mainstream development programs like microfinance. The optimal combination of interventions to address the myriad needs of these neglected women is no easy task, and BRAC should be commended for their innovation and promising success to date.

Saman Nizami graduated from UCSD with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and History. She is currently working for a Pakistan-based NGO, HOPE (Health Oriented Preventive Education), primarily in disaster response projects aimed to help the victims of the recent 2010 floods. She’s also a Project Team Lead for ADP (Association for the Development of Pakistan). During her spare time, Saman enjoys trying new restaurants (particularly sushi), learning North Indian classical singing, watching Bollywood movies, and most recently – tweeting. You can follow her @saman_nizami.

This post is a reflection of Saman Nizami’s experiences and observations during her internship for BRAC’s “Targeting the Ultra-Poor” program in Bangladesh.

To recap on my previous post, BRAC’s “Targeting the Ultra-Poor” (TUP) program takes an integrated approach towards empowering women at the bottom of the poverty ladder. In addition to providing income generating assets and enterprise development training, the other four components of the program play a subtle but vital role in lifting these women out of poverty as well. In this post, I’ll discuss two of these powerful catalysts (i.e. healthcare support and social development) and the other two (i.e. financial discipline and subsistence allowance) in my next post.

Preliminary Healthcare Services and Education

Tasmeena

Meet Tasmeena (above). She is a domestic servant, who was recently recruited into the TUP program. Tasmeena suffers from fever frequently, which hinders her from working. Even when I met her, she had a high fever – which I had to diagnose by touching her forehead and wrist because she couldn’t afford basic healthcare essentials like a thermometer. In the past, she has met physicians who suggested she get blood tests, but she never followed through because, again, she could not afford it.

Her weak livelihood and poor health condition were inter-dependent. Her meager income would not allow to her seek formal medical care for treatment or purchase medication. Similarly, her poor health condition was pushing her into further destitution by limiting the manual labor she could perform or making her take days off from work. For Tasmeena and her family, not going to work for a day meant forgoing a day’s income which had dire consequences. Her family may have to starve for the day or she may have to resort to begging for cash and food. Fortunately, BRAC will provide her healthcare services to improve her health condition which will ultimately strengthen her livelihood.

Another strategy of the program is health education. I sat in on one of BRAC’s health education sessions with the TUP members where BRAC’s health volunteers were discussing the importance of feminine hygiene and family planning. See my picture below.

BRAC health education session

These women are also given hygiene education and essential items like sanitary latrines and tube-wells for safe drinking water to protect them from communicable diseases.

BRAC’s integrated health services aim to improve the nutritional and health statuses of these women and their families. As a result, this improvement in their families’ health plays a key role in stimulating any improvements in the households’ economic conditions.

Madhu Bi, wearing sandals and using a tube-well, BRAC, TUP Program
Above: TUP member, Madhu Bi, wearing sandals and using a tube-well she received from BRAC for safe drinking water. She explained that in the past, her children have suffered from diseases like jaundice and diarrhea, but now they have been much healthier as a result of changing simple practices and receiving key facilities (i.e. sanitary latrine and tube-well).

Social Development

Another important mechanism propelling the program’s success is mobilizing the community and building the human social capital of the rural poor (particularly women). The first time I went to a Gram Daridro Bimochon Committee (GDBC) meeting, a local rural elite committee formed to protect these vulnerable families, the leadership proudly described their responsibilities including information dissemination on health issues, protection of the women’s assets , and advocacy of their rights to the local government. At the meeting, the TUP members were closely following the meeting’s agenda and openly expressing their thoughts on how to address their communities’ needs. Towards the end, the women and the GDBC gifted a tin house roof to an ill widow purchased through collective donations from the community.  I was amazed to see this strong affinity and urge to help others among these women, despite the difficult conditions they’re in themselves.

Here is a short video I took from one of the GDBC meetings:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1CiM9KwvpY&version=3&hl=en_US] As an additional effort in socially empowering women, BRAC’s field staff trains them on social issues that plague their communities. This includes teaching them how to write their name, the importance of marriage and birth certificates, and laws on early child marriage, dowry, etc. These women are then encouraged to uphold their rights, play a more active role in their communities, and strongly resist abuse and exploitation.

BRAC's field staff teaching Rukhsana
Above: BRAC’s field staff teaching Rukhsana how to write her name as part of the social development training.

I met a TUP graduate (2006) named Masooda who has progressed significantly in terms of social development.  When she was recruited to the TUP program, Masooda felt alienated as a poor widow living on her own. Further, she had no time or energy to interact with people because of her arduous manual labor as a domestic servant. However, after graduating from the TUP program, she plays an active role in her community. She frequently gives her community members advice, and even stopped two early child marriages among her relatives by vehemently protesting against it. She is approaching local government representatives to secure her entitlements (i.e. widow allowance) as well.

Another TUP graduate, Afreena, used to be physically tortured by her husband, but she felt like she had no one to turn to. However, now that she generates income and has assets in her ownership, she has authority within the household and her husband treats her with respect. Now, the question that arises is if her husband is treating her well because he considers her to be a source of income, or have his fundamental beliefs about women changed? Will this change be sustained unconditionally in the long term even if Afreena decides to sell her assets and stop contributing to the household? A little too soon to tell…

Nevertheless, it’s clear that lifting these women out of poverty requires the need to intrinsically empower them, where they learn how to protect themselves from marginalization and control their own lives. It also involves instilling perception changes among men and women and dismantling the entrenched ideology of gender inequality.

And it doesn’t stop here…more to come in my next post!

Saman Nizami graduated from UCSD with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and History. She is currently working for a Pakistan-based NGO, HOPE (Health Oriented Preventive Education), primarily in disaster response projects aimed to help the victims of the recent 2010 floods. She’s also a Project Team Lead for ADP (Association for the Development of Pakistan). During her spare time, Saman enjoys trying new restaurants (particularly sushi), learning North Indian classical singing, watching Bollywood movies, and most recently – tweeting. You can follow her @saman_nizami.

This post is a reflection of her experiences and observations during her internship for BRAC’s “Targeting the Ultra-Poor” program in Bangladesh.

Woman with baby

About 40% of Bangladesh’s population lives in poverty while 20% fall below the poverty line. This bottom 20% can’t meet 80% of their dietary needs despite spending 80% of their meager income on food. They are so deeply trapped in poverty that they are unable to benefit from mainstream development interventions like microfinance. Among these ultra-poor households, it is imperative to focus attention on women because, while their role as a caretaker is pivotal for the family, they are at the bottom of the poverty ladder and discriminated against because of their gender. Targeted efforts on these marginalized women have the potential to catalyze long term social change by improving their families’ quality of life and raising their status in society.

An initiative to empower these women living in abject poverty was thus born.  It was determined that their various needs must be holistically addressed, coupled with extensive monitoring and training by field staff.  This, in turn, would change the perception of the woman both within the household and the community.  I was fortunate enough to observe and work for this cause in Bangladesh, dubbed BRAC’S “Targeting the Ultra-Poor” (TUP) Program.

So, what is the TUP program?

The TUP program identifies and targets these ultra-poor households in the most impoverished districts in Bangladesh through a participatory wealth ranking survey tool.  The TUP program empowers these women through various channels:

  1. Transfer of income generating assets (e.g. livestock, cultivable land, etc.)
  2. Enterprise development training
  3. Preliminary healthcare services
  4. Social development
  5. Subsistence allowance
  6. Financial discipline

The women are expected to “graduate” the program within eighteen months, after which they will be considered moderately poor (i.e. closer to the poverty line) and economically active. It is then that they can be effectively mainstreamed into microfinance and other conventional poverty alleviation programs to further improve their lives.

The micro-enterprise development component of the program, which includes providing productive assets and enterprise development training (i.e. numbers 1 and 2 above, respectively), is crucial to help these women achieve financial self-sufficiency. Micro-enterprise development has been discussed at great length and, in some respects, appears to be a straightforward solution to alleviating poverty.

Meet Golapi Begum, a TUP member who received 3 goats and poultry as her productive assets. And on the right, Golapi Begum happily showing me the first two eggs her chickens had just laid.

Meet Golapi Begum, a TUP member who received 3 goats and poultry as her productive assets.Golapi Begum happily showing me the first two eggs her chickens had just laid.

However, my experience with TUP has shown me that perhaps giving women the means to build their own enterprise is not the silver bullet to truly improving their livelihood. The program’s other four aspects (i.e. numbers 3 – 6 above) complement the micro-development component bringing about powerful impact in these women’s lives. I’ll delve into these four components of the program in my next post. So, stay tuned to see how these pieces fit together to solve this puzzle.

Saman Nizami graduated from UCSD with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and History. She is currently working for a Pakistan-based NGO, HOPE (Health Oriented Preventive Education), primarily in disaster response projects aimed to help the victims of the recent 2010 floods. She’s also a Project Team Lead for ADP (Association for the Development of Pakistan). During her spare time, Saman enjoys trying new restaurants (particularly sushi), learning North Indian classical singing, watching Bollywood movies, and most recently – tweeting. You can follow her @saman_nizami.

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