Empowering the extreme poor
Between 2008 and 2016 the Department for International Development (DFID) (now the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, FCDO) funded a multi-million pound programme in Bangladesh: The Economic Empowerment of the Extreme Poor (EEP).
The aim of the programme was to contribute to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere. It addressed the needs of those living in extreme poverty, often also belonging to marginalised groups or residing in climatically vulnerable locations. The programme was implemented nationally through partner Non-Government Organisations (NGO).
Professor Joe Devine from the Department of Social & Policy Sciences helped design the programme, and along with Dr Mathilde Maîtrot and Professor Geof Wood, mentored the research and advocacy activities of the programme.
Primary research was carried out throughout the programme with data being generated from:
- life history methodologies
- case studies of NGO interventions
Key research findings
Key findings from the programme highlight that:
- we need more fine-grained or localised analysis of extreme poverty
- livelihood improvements gained by the extreme poor are always fragile, because of local power structures that exploit them
- income and assets alone can not support sustainable improvement of the extreme poor’s wellbeing
- women are more likely to become and stay extreme poor
- maternal and child health, and infant malnutrition are central to the reproduction of extreme poverty through different generations
- unavoidable life course circumstances such as widowhood, chronic illness, disability and age have greater negative and longer-term impacts in the lives of the extreme poor
- religious and ethnic minorities are more likely to be extreme poor
- there are extreme poverty pockets, which are geographically remote or more vulnerable to adverse climatic impacts
Challenging existing views
The findings of our research challenge a recent World Bank report that finds a divergence between the East and West of Bangladesh with the latter experiencing less poverty reduction. Our research instead points to local concentrations of extreme poverty pockets across the whole country.
Our research leads to two principal policy recommendations:
- a blended focus upon extreme poverty pockets, engaging with the many challenges that the extreme poor face and not just focusing on income and assets
- a social worker, community service approach at household level, managed through professional supervision, to mediate with oppressive structures and ensure the rights of the extreme poor are upheld
This policy approach entails a long-term commitment to extreme poverty reduction that results in sustainable wellbeing benefits for the extreme poor.
The research has produced a number of outputs that have stimulated debate and discussion with academics, practitioners and policy makers in Bangladesh, including the recent Extreme Poverty, Growth and Inequality in Bangladesh.
Reducing extreme poverty
Our research into extreme poverty has had a demonstrable impact on strategic decisions of the Government of Bangladesh, donors and NGOs. This has fundamentally altered the landscape of poverty reduction strategies, resulting in direct benefits for the country’s extreme poor.
Professor Devine, Dr Maîtrot, and Professor Wood were invited to draw on their research to provide inputs into the country's 7th Five Year Plan (2015 to 2020) and 8th Five Plan (2021 to 2025).
When the EEP programme concluded in 2016, it had exceeded all its targets, with:
- over 1 million extreme poor beneficiaries ‘graduating’ from extreme poverty
- 1.17 million achieving food security
- 153,000 benefitting from cash transfers programmes
Furthermore there is evidence the Government of Bangladesh has followed up on its 7th Five Year Plan commitment and provided more welfare resources for the extreme poor.
In 2018/19 it allocated a total of £6 billion for extreme poverty programmes (up from £3 billion in 2014/15). This represents an increase of 1.82% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dedicated to extreme poverty reduction, signalling a real increase rather than just a nominal one.
Additionally, the Government increased investments in its Social Safety Net (SSN) programmes that support the poor and vulnerable, from 2.02% of GDP in 2014/15 to 2.53% of GDP in 2018/19. The proportional allocation of SSN resources exclusively targeting the extreme poor also increased from 11% in 2014/15 to 21% in 2018/19.
Professor Devine, Dr Maîtrot, and Professor Wood continue to carry out research into extreme poverty in Bangladesh, and continue to collaborate with policy makers and practitioners.