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How assets + training can transform the lives of ultra-poor women: new evidence from Bangladesh

December 9, 2015
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People are often very rude about ‘big push’ approaches to development – the idea that you can kickstart a country

Passport out of poverty?

Passport out of poverty?

(or a millennium village) by simultaneously shoving in piles of different projects, technical assistance and cash. The approach hasn’t got a great track record, but now a kind of micro Big Push, targeting the ‘ultra poor’ in a range of countries, is showing some really promising results.

The approach has been pioneered by Bangladeshi development organisation BRAC, which aims to help households escape extreme poverty by supporting women to set up their own small businesses. BRAC provides both assets and skills training for some of the poorest women in Bangladesh.

The women in the villages effectively choose between casual wage labour in agriculture or working as a domestic maid, and self-employment in livestock rearing. Before BRAC arrived, the poorest women were far more reliant on casual wage labour, while women from wealthier households were predominantly engaged in livestock.

This division matters. Hourly earnings for wage labour are on average about half those for livestock rearing, and livestock produces throughout the year, whereas demand for agricultural labour is seasonal. But the barriers to entry for livestock rearing are higher – i.e. you have to buy a goat or cow in the first place – meaning that the poorest don’t generally get to do this work.

So BRAC provided livestock worth about $140 per woman, and two years of training worth roughly the same amount.

BRAC fig 1Today the International Growth Centre, based at the LSE, is publishing the findings of a seven-year evaluation of the first of these programmes, covering over 1300 villages and tracking over 21,000 households over seven years, including 6,700 ultra-poor households and 15,100 from other wealth classes. The results are impressive:

Although the programme ended after two years, the benefits have continued to accrue: After four years, the ultra-poor increased hours devoted to livestock rearing by 361%, while hours devoted to maid services and agricultural labour fell by 36% and 17%, respectively. Working 22% more hours and 25% more days, earnings increase by 37%.

Benefits go beyond income: Four years after the initial transfer – and two years after direct programme support ended – the programme resulted in a 9% increase in per-capita ‘non-durable’ (i.e. food) consumption and a decline of 8.4 percentage points in the number of households living on less than $1.25 per day.

Household cash savings increased nearly ninefold, the value of household assets more than doubled and the household saving rate increased by 25 percentage points from an initial value of close to zero. The value of land owned by the ultra-poor rose by 220%, the value of productive assets tripled, and beneficiaries became more engaged in credit markets.

Overall, the programme seems to have triggered the kind of long term take-off that Big Push advocates everywhere

A group of men and women attend a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in Kaposhatia in Pakchanda union in Hossanipur upazila.  Bangladesh. Women who are identified as an ultra poor by PRA receives a male and a female cow, a cow shed and three days long enterprise training on cow-raring from BRAC. She also receives Taka 175/week for 50 weeks.

Identifying women who are ultra poor using PRA

dream of. The change in spending on non-durables was 2.5 times higher after seven years than after four, and the increase in land access doubled (see graph).

As for donors, the IGC team worked out that on average, for every £1 invested in the programme there was a return of £5.40 in terms of increased income and assets for the women concerned.

Two caveats spring to mind:

  1. The report doesn’t discuss attitudes much, merely stating that poor women are poor because they are shut out of better jobs. Give them the assets and the training and they happily switch to better jobs. I wonder what happens when you take this approach into a more caste-ridden society such as large parts of neighbouring India, where barriers to social and economic mobility include attitudes both among poor women and their neighbours?
  2. Is there no fallacy of composition at work here? Can everyone move from labour to raising livestock without messing up the markets for both?

I’m sure there will be lots of much techier people than me trying to find fault, but on the face of it, this looks like a truly impressive piece of research, and an even more impressive approach to ending extreme poverty. The approach has now spread to some 20 countries, and research in many of these  suggests similar degrees of success. If the SDG commitment to ‘getting to zero’ is to mean anything, these kinds of programme are going to play a vital role.

BRAC founder Sir Fazle Hasan Abed will launch the report at LSE this evening, and the event will be livestreamed.

3m summary of the research findings here



  1. I wonder who fills the maid services/agricultural labour positions now? Do those able to pay for these services no longer need them, do it themselves, pay more, or pay another even poorer socioeconomic group?

  2. BRAC’s Ultra poor program is excellent and connects with their strong poverty alleviation model. In other countries the project mode of development is challenging when there are not sustainable, long term institutions like BRAC. In Liberia, for example, we want to link direct assistance projects to a sustainable community development approach that builds solidarity and capacity of communities to address their various needs. Savings Groups (or VSLA) reach most of the poor population, and they promote a horizontal learning process for members to advance their livelihood needs and aspirations. Direct assistance (Cash Transfer, Vouchers, cows, etc) for the ultra poor should be an incentive to join Savings Groups and become part of the peer support dynamics.

  3. Can someone explain this in English: “the ultra-poor increased hours devoted to livestock rearing by 361%, while hours devoted to maid services and agricultural labour fell by 36% and 17%, respectively. Working 22% more hours and 25% more days, earnings increase by 37%”? Women are already working many hours a day, every day of the year, so how can they work 25% more days? at what cost to themselves? The gains, in % terms, look very impressive, but what do they look like in terms of benefits to the women? eg. with a low consumption level, what does a 9% increase look like in terms of real food on the table and do the women get an equal share?

    1. OK, so you want absolute numbers rather than percentages – let’s see if BRAC can oblige. I agree, it’s a bit of a stats blizzard as it stands

  4. BRAC’s program was replicated in West Bengal and was a huge success. It was replicated in Andhra (I believe) by Morduch and didn’t find any impact because the graduation program just replaced income from food for work program. I never figured out why that study was not reported along with the other ones in the big shin-dig at the World Bank and the paper published in Science. Duflo stated that the graduation program raised the aspiration as well as mental health of the ultra-poor in West Bengal http://www.economist.com/node/21554506

    Your second objection suffer from the lump of labor fallacy. It assumes that there is only a fixed demand for livestock in the area where the program is in effect. So the gain to the ultra poor is at the expense of someone else’s product. It is wrong. The increased income, consumption, and saving of the ultra-poor will increase the demand for the product of others who will in turn buy more livestock from them. Village economies, at least in Bangladesh, is much more dynamic. BTW, people raised the same objections when microcredit was first introduced in Bangladesh. The same objection is recycled by some contemporary critics of microcredit.

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