In recent decades, the growing, frustratingly persistent and complex problem of global poverty has attracted the focused attention of a wide variety of individuals and institutions—nonprofits, for-profits, academics, policy makers and even large corporations—all interested in developing interventions to tackle this societal encumbrance once and for all.
Through frequent interactions with the poor in their own communities, practitioners have found increasing evidence that poverty is far from a homogeneous phenomenon. Even among the poor, some households live in relatively more stable circumstances while others struggle day in and day out to meet their basic needs. For this latter group—often referred to as the ‘ultra poor’—many experts recommend administering a subsidy-driven intervention, in which, over the course of 18-24 months, a series of services such as food grain provision, healthcare, and basic skills training are provided in order to help beneficiaries meet their most critical needs. Such a ‘safety net’ intervention ends with the transfer of a productive asset—such as a cow, or a pair of goats—so that the beneficiary is left with a livelihood and the means to generate income to sustain this more stable, improved quality of life.
This case study examines the experience of a small non-profit, Partners in Prosperity Society (PnP), between 2009-2011 as it endeavoured to replicate the safety net methodology in order to help guide 400 households in Dehradun, Uttarakhand (located in northern India) out of extreme poverty. The PnP team experienced both high and low points during the course of the pilot, which are detailed herein, but by far the most important lesson learned was that future interventions should start, not end, with livelihood activities for their ultra poor beneficiaries. Introducing income- generating opportunities at the very outset would have more quickly stabilised households’ circumstances, allowing for increased participation in other interventions such as financial literacy training and healthcare.
Other critical takeaways from PnP’s first Ultra Poor Program pilot include the following:
- It is important to identify influential members of the slum communities and involve them in the administration of the program. This helps to quickly win the beneficiaries’ trust and cooperation.
- Practitioners should recognise the high value that the urban poor place on their time and the great need for efficiency of service. Even if a product or service is being offered to the poor for free, beneficiaries will not partake if it cuts into time they would use to earn an income.
- All training and direct interactions with the poor need to be centred around practical themes that immediately generate tangible value for them. For example, PnP’s beneficiaries showed little interest in financial literacy training sessions that preached the value of savings. The training was far more effective after PnP opened bank accounts for beneficiaries and helped them determine how much of a weekly amount should be set aside and deposited in the account.
- Do not underestimate the effectiveness of an interim solution as a stepping- stone to the longer-term, ideal solution. For instance, PnP felt that a group livelihood activity was the best solution to effect higher incomes and more job security, but beneficiaries lacked the trust and cooperation to make a group livelihood model work. Therefore, PnP had to settle with introducing individual livelihoods to first increase beneficiaries’ comfort level in running their own business. Over time, PnP will encourage greater cooperation through regular self-help group (SHG) meetings.
- The government plays a critical role in any ultra poor-focused intervention. Though partnership with public sector programs is often fraught with bureaucracy and administrative complexities, PnP strongly recommends forging a good working relationship with local authorities. The PnP experience highlights the benefits that can result from establishing a one-time government authorisation— which immediately qualified PnP’s beneficiaries for bank accounts—versus the challenges inherent in attempting to establish a longer-term dependence on government aid.
- The ultra poor are willing and able to pay for certain products and services. Indeed, PnP was working with a highly marginalised and vulnerable group, but found once livelihoods were introduced, beneficiaries were able to pay for some of the interventions. This not only helped defray some of the program costs, but also helped break complacent attitudes and encouraged beneficiaries to take the program seriously.
PnP’s first Ultra Poor Program pilot offers many important lessons for fellow practitioners and those interested in administering interventions for the urban ultra poor in any country. If the PnP team has the opportunity to launch a second pilot—a possibility that was being scoped at the time this report went to press—it will most definitely lead with skills training and livelihood activities for all beneficiaries, followed by healthcare and financial literacy interventions.
In the words of PnP’s Founder Manab Chakraborty, ‘As soon as the poor discover they can earn an income, they take everything else we teach them very seriously. There is a sudden and noticeable increase in their confidence levels.’