Najmul guided his motorcycle along the path, passing huts made of bamboo, straw and tin running along either side. He parked alongside a gathering of homes arranged in a square and climbed off his bike. Najmul walked into the extended family homestead, called a bari in Bangladesh. In the small clearing in the center sat 22 women, dressed in brightly colored saris, ready for their meeting with the BRAC Ultra Poor Graduation program to begin. They stood to greet Najmul as he came in, and he responded with a greeting of his own.
“Let’s review our six social lessons,” he said, as they all took their seats on a plastic mat, the women arranged in a semicircle around Najmul.
“No child marriage,” said the women in unison. “Register all marriages. Don’t pay dowry. Prevent human trafficking. Be prepared for disasters. Keep children in school.”
“Very good,” said Najmul. “And the health lessons?”
“Plan our families,” the women responded. “Eat healthy food every day. Take vitamins. Wash our hands and utensils. Know how to deworm our children. Get immunized.”
“You know them all,” exclaimed Najmul. “Now how about your savings. Do you all have savings deposits to make?” Najmul went to each woman and accepted her deposit. He wrote in her passbook the date and the amount of the deposit. He gave each woman a receipt that he and the woman both signed.
When he was done, Najmul pulled out a large presentation book. One side had pictures, the other side a narrative that explained the picture. He set the book on the ground, teepee style. “Today we are going to review the lesson on avoiding water-borne diseases,” he said as he turned to the first page that showed insects and standing water around a picture of a woman. As he flipped through the book, Najmul explained how water-borne diseases spread, and how they should wash their hands, plates, pots and utensils with clean water. He quizzed the women about when and how they should do the washing, and they all gave him the answers.
At the end of the session, Najmul and the women all rose and said goodbye. Najmul left with Abia (you can read more of Abia’s story here). He was going with her to check on her home and her business assets and answer any questions she might have. When they arrived at bari of Abia’s husband’s family a few meters away, Najmul asked to see her garden. Abia took him to the side of the house where she was growing vegetables to use in the family meals. Then Najmul asked to see inside her house. Abia stayed outside as Najmul looked in, checking on the cleanliness of the family living quarters, noticing the iron roof and walls where once she only had straw. He also saw the separate enclosure where the animals slept at night. Najmul came out, complimenting Abia on her work. He asked to see her workbook and made a few notes in it.
Najmul then checked on the condition of Abia’s livestock, asking about their immunizations. Abia answered that they were up to date, and then offered, “I plan to sell some of the goats soon so that I can buy another cow, but I will wait till after that one has kids.” She pointed to one of her goats with a swelling belly.
Najmul reviewed Abia’s income and expenses over the last two weeks, making some more notes in workbook. He checked the part of the workbook where Abia had marked on pictures to show what her family had to eat each day. He congratulated her again on her work and her thrift. He told her that she was doing so well in managing her money that, next month, she might want to think about taking out a loan to buy more livestock.
Najmul said goodbye to Abia and walked on to the next bari, where another participant waited to meet with him. Over the course of the day he would visit nine other women, in addition to Abia.
Researchers from MIT and Yale have conducted randomized control tests on the Ultra Poor Graduation approach, both in Bangladesh and in replications of the approach in other countries. They published their findings in Science Magazine and concluded that this approach led to lasting economic benefits, increased self-employment income, increased savings and increased confidence. They also found that participants continue to see growth in these areas years after they stop receiving support.
When I ask the researchers what they think the secret ingredient is that makes these programs successful, they all point to the mentoring, the work that Najmul does when he visits each participant every two weeks to check on their progress, offer advice, answer questions, and correct any misunderstandings.
The participants in these programs have well-honed survival skills that have enabled them to stay alive despite all the hardships and setbacks they have faced. But they will need a different set of skills to be able to manage assets, manage a cash flow that at times has surpluses, adapt new practices that will keep their families and their livestock healthy and safe, and provide opportunities for their children that they never experienced for themselves. They will also need to gain confidence in trying these new things, someone to support them when they get it wrong, and help them to see ways to correct themselves. It is this regular interaction with someone who gets to know them well, providing encouragement and support, helping them see the path ahead, that allows these women to gain confidence in themselves, to begin imagining a different future, and to believe that they actually could accomplish some of their dreams.
As he drove his motorcycle home, Najmul recalled what Abia had been like when she started the program a year ago. With her husband not able to work, and the family having no assets, Abia had survived by begging others for food.
Najmul thought about how Abia looked today. She had a bed, a roof that kept the rain out and an enclosure for her animals. She earned enough to provide for herself and she knew how to provide nutricious meals that sustained her energy. She had a dream for the future — owning a piece of land she could pass on to her children. A feeling of gratitude swept over him, that he had been able to witness such a transformation, and that he had played a small part in making it happen.