Mahmuda Fits the Target

Larry Reed
September 07, 2017

Mahmuda and her neighbors had all decided to go to the meeting. They didn’t know anything about this organization, but everyone they knew had been talking about this meeting for days.  Mahmuda and her friends just wanted to see what would happen.

When they got to the clearing, they found almost everyone in the village there. Mahmuda and her neighbors felt a little embarrassed with their faded saris in the midst of so many bright colors. They moved to the back, trying not to be noticed. The men all sat together on the other side. Mahmuda still remembers the day. The rains had stopped and the sun shone clear. She had wrapped her only shawl tightly around her shoulders to ward off the chill in the morning air.

In the middle of the circle she saw that someone had scraped some shapes into the dirt. It looked like a big rectangle, with some lines of blue and white chalk, and lots of shapes of different sizes, with the lines passing between them.

Mahmuda saw a young woman and two young men who didn’t look like they came from the village standing under the tree on one side of the circle. The young woman stepped forward and thanked everyone for coming out. She said that they were doing a survey of economic activity in the village, and they needed everyone's help. She said she worked for BRAC, and she introduced herself and the two men with her. One of the men then started speaking. He said that the drawing in the dirt was a map of the village.                                                                                                            

In the middle of the circle she saw that someone had scraped some shapes into the dirt. It looked like a big rectangle, with some lines of blue and white chalk, and lots of shapes of different sizes, with the lines passing between them.

Mahmuda saw a young woman and two young men who didn’t look like they came from the village standing under the tree on one side of the circle. The young woman stepped forward and thanked everyone for coming out. She said that they were doing a survey of economic activity in the village, and they needed everyone's help. She said she worked for BRAC, and she introduced herself and the two men with her. One of the men then started speaking. He said that the drawing in the dirt was a map of the village.

Mahmuda had never seen a map before, so she wasn't sure what that meant. Then the young man started pointing to different shapes. "There's the mosque," he said, pointing to a circle in the middle. "Here is the government building," he said, pointing to one of the larger squares, "here are the stores." His finger moved to show some medium and small squares. "We are standing right here." He pointed to an open space near the center of the drawing, where many of the lines came together.

Mahmuda smiled as she began to understand. The drawing was like a miniature picture of their village. She realized that the thick white lines were streets, and the small papers shape were buildings. With her eyes she followed the streets from the center of town out to her neighborhood, and then saw the path that led to where she and her granddaughter stayed.

She listened to the young men and the young woman speak. They spoke so well, so clearly. They must have had good educations, she thought. It made her wish she had been able to go to school when she was young. But her parents did not have enough money to send her, and they needed her to help her mother weaving bamboo mats.

 

The young man leading the meeting started going down each street of the map and asking who lived there.  He had a helper put a symbol of a house at each spot.  

Once he got through the entire village, he went back to each house symbol and asked who lived there and what they did to earn income.  He wrote this information down on a card.  Then he went through all the cards and ask the villagers about the level of wealth of the household described on the card, separating the cards into five piles, from most to least wealthy.

Finally he asked the villagers to give names to each pile, starting with those that earned the most. The villagers named that group the wealthy. The next pile they called the middle class. Then came the not-so-poor, the poor and the extremely poor.


Mahmuda wasn't sure what to think when her card ended up on the last pile, the extremely poor. She was embarrassed to think that she was in the last group, but, on the other hand, it seemed like her neighbors knew about her and her struggles.

The young lady stepped forward to thank the people of the village for their participation. She told them that their organization would use the information they had given to make a plan for what work they could do in the village, and that they would have follow up meetings with some of the people over the next few days.

Mahmuda walked home with the ladies in her neighborhood, each of them chatting about what they had just heard and making guesses about what sort of work this BRAC organization did.

The next day, Mahmuda was surprised when the young lady from the meeting came to her door and asked to speak with her. She asked a lot of questions about her living conditions and her family.

Mahmuda told the lady some of her story. How she learned how to weave bamboo from her mother; that she had been married when she was 12; that her husband’s family was too poor to provide them with a place to stay, so they lived in a hut next to her parents house; how her husband earned very little as a traditional healer, since the only ones who came to a traditional healer were those too poor to go to the doctor; how she did not earn much from her own weaving work because she did not have enough money to buy raw material, so she could only work when people would bring her bamboo and ask her to weave something for them; how she and her husband often fought when they did not have enough food to eat; how her husband died suddenly of a heart attack a few years ago.

The young lady thanked her for the information and then left. The next day, Mahmuda received a visit from one of the young men who had led the meeting. Heasked her different questions, but on the same topics the young lady had asked about. He asked a lot of questions about Mahmuda's daughters. Yes, they live in Dhaka. Yes, they work in a garment factory. No, they don't send any money back to me, they struggle to pay enough to live there. Yes, that's Ruana, she's my granddaughter. Yes, her mother sends money for her to go to school, and she brings clothes for her when she visits.

The young man thanked her and left.


  

Why did BRAC go to all this work to select the people that would join its Ultra Poor Graduation program?

After decades of operating in Bangladesh, BRAC found that there was a group of people who still remained largely unserved by their programs. They called this group the Ultra Poor, people whose poverty left them uncomfortable using BRAC's medical services, unable to send their children to BRAC's schools and too vulnerable to take out one of BRAC's microfinance loans. Like Mahmuda, most of these people lived in female-headed households. Most grew up in poverty, had little or no formal education, got married while still children, and go days without eating during the fallow seasons. Their poverty also means that they lack power in their villages, making them vulnerable to others who might want to take advantage of them, so they find safety by staying invisible.

Thus, those living in ultra-poverty often get missed by those running poverty alleviation programs. They do not have networks to inform them about programs in their area. They fear being seen by government officials or powerful people, afraid that they might get pushed off the little bit of land where they stay.

BRAC worked to begin identifying some of these people, and to learn more about their abilities and their needs. They developed the Ultra Poor Graduation program specifically targeted at this group, putting together a holistic set of services to help them improve their conditions to the point where they could provide for their own livelihoods, eat regular meals and send their children to school.

BRAC takes care to make sure that the program actually reaches those living in ultra-poverty. Their targeting process involves four steps. First, they go to villages identified by the government as having large concentrations of people living in poverty. Next comes the village meeting, like the one described above. Using the methods of Participatory Rapid Appraisal, BRAC works with the villagers to identify the people in the village living in the most severe poverty.  Many times, they have to double check to make sure that their maps include everyone, because villagers often forget about these people.

After the village meeting comes a follow up survey carried out with those in the piles at the lower end of the wealth range.   BRAC staff ask these people a variety of questions used to determine each person’s level of income and vulnerability. Then comes another survey, with another staff member double checking the work of the first.

Over the course of this series on BRAC we learn many lessons about addressing those in ultra- poverty. One of the most important is this first one - if we want to reach all those in poverty, we will need to have programs targeted specifically to serve the ultra poor. They have the same abilities of people at any other level, but their circumstances require a fuller set of services to get them to the point where they can move beyond survival mode and activate those abilities. BRAC also shows us that this targeting must be done carefully, that the simple methods that many development efforts use to identify their clients often miss this group in greatest need.

This is an important lesson for us in RESULTS. As we advocate for policies that will bring the end to extreme poverty, we need to make sure that we call on the World Bank, bilateral donors, NGOs and national governments to develop programs specifically targeted to reach those living in ultra-poverty, and that employ robust methods for locating this population. If we don't, we may find that the progress the world is making in reducing poverty stalls out because we failed to design our work to serve people who have the greatest need.


Mahmuda wondered what all the questions were about. The next week she found out. The young man came back and told her she had been selected for a special program of BRAC designed for people who were living in ultra-poverty. He explained that BRAC would be helping her over the next two years to gain some assets, get some training in how to manage them, and some advice on how to improve her economic situation. Mahmuda remembers it as the day her life changed forever.