28 January 2015

Poverty graduation programmes: focus on first 1000 days for a double whammy

Last night I was speaking at the House of Lords at a Concern Worldwide event on poverty graduation programmes.  These programmes aim to help families get out of poverty, never to return (aren’t all development programmes designed to do this, you ask?). 

I began by reviewing the global poverty numbers.  No matter how many times I look at them, their sheer magnitude always surprises me: 1.4 billion living on less than $1.25 a day, 3.2 billion on less than $2.50 and 5.2 billion on less than $10 a day.

Graduation programmes are targeted towards those trapped in poverty and they are often the poorest of the poor.  A recent paper by Martin Ravallion finds that the consumption floor is not increasing (see Figure 1).  In other words there are a number of ways that poverty rates can decline—from a shift in income distribution or an elongation of the distribution. It seems the latter is happening.

Combined with some evidence in the Lancet from 2012 (Carrera et al.) that targeting worst off infants with nutrition programmes produces the best benefit cost ratios (more expensive than going to the next worst off group, but with returns that more than compensate) the moral and economic case for addressing extreme poverty is compelling.

To graduate the poorest families, a number of constraints to have to be addressed in tandem, so the idea goes.  They address consumption freeing up time for other activities.  Health is promoted so that people are able bodied.  Training and mentoring is provided so that they can learn skills and practices.  Microfinance is engaged with to develop financial skills and knowledge.  Assets are transferred and develop to kickstart more independent and resilient livelihoods. 

So do they work?  There is quite a bit of evidence that they work (but not always), although not much of it has made its way into the journals just yet.  Several of the IPA evaluations suggest income and consumption increases of 6-16 % by end of second year of participation. (see figure below). study by Chris Blattman in Uganda found a doubling of income.  

These programmes are expensive, Concern told us their graduation programmes cost $300/household/year for 3 years.  Is that a lot?  If an investment of less than $1 a day for 3 years can move people permanently above the $1.25 a day line, then that looks like good value to me.  But there is the rub—the impacts have to be sustained to be attractive.  How many research funders will support the kind of longer term studies needed to assess sustainability?

Is there a way to build some insurance against the graduation programme failure beyond the first 3 years?  Yes, make sure there are actions to graduate infants in the first 1000 days after conception.  The benefit cost ratios are large and they persist beyond 3 years of life, even if the family falls back into poverty. 

Graduation programmes that have a focus on the first 2-3 years of life hold the promise of (as our American friends would say) a double major:  infants with stronger chances of lifetime earnings, living within households with stronger chances of escaping the clutches of poverty.


laurence said...

Is there any reason why you're citing poverty numbers from 2005? Official estimates have since been published for 2008, 2010 and 2011. They're lower, so their magnitude should come as less of a surprise.

Lawrence Haddad said...

Its a good point. I liked the graphic on the WB website and I couldn't find a more up to date one. But it does not change the story. Thanks