(Agnes meets with her coach as a participant in the PROFIT Financial Graduation pilot in Kitui, Kenya where BRAC UPGI provided technical assistance)

By Lauren Whitehead, Director of Technical Assistance, and Elaina Conrad, Communication Associate of BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative


COVID-19 has made it clear that when we are all covered by a safety net, we are all better off. Even as vaccines become increasingly available in Europe and North America, the lethal second wave of the pandemic in India is a warning to the world of what happens when robust social protection systems are not in place (Reuters, 2021). Meanwhile, throughout the pandemic, public health systems have saved lives as income and consumption support programmes enabled people to stay home and slow the spread of the virus.

To support the wellbeing of all people, we need universal social protection. Critical to this effort is ensuring everyone is included—especially populations already marginalized by extreme poverty.


Millions excluded from social protection systems

Millions of people from marginalized groups are currently excluded from social protection systems including access to essential services. A progressive universalist approach to social protection systems actively seeks to include these populations and then gradually extend to coverage for all. To do this, we need programmes and policies that prioritize reaching people in extreme poverty and address their multidimensional needs and the challenges that perpetuate and deepen the poverty cycle.

(To learn more about why the poorest populations should have access to social protection services, read our blog by Rasha Natour.)


BRAC’s Graduation approach with marginalized communities

BRAC’s Graduation approach specifically focuses on people living in extreme poverty, who are often inadvertently excluded from social protection systems due to information asymmetries on eligibility and availability of support, difficulty in accessing especially vulnerable and marginalized communities, or barriers in access to services including stigmas. The Graduation methodology has been adapted for marginalized populations including climate vulnerable communities, people living with disabilities, and refugees, among others. Harnessing this approach provides a pathway for countries to make their existing social protection systems more comprehensive, more adaptive, and more inclusive by building on existing programmes and policies.

Over two decades of experience, BRAC has developed key lessons on how to enhance existing social protections programmes by incorporating the Graduation approach (O’Donnell, 2020). Starting with targeting processes that build on and supplement government registries, we identify those households most in need of comprehensive support. A robust and contextualized programme design includes assessing the local context and intended population to identify vulnerabilities along multiple dimensions including socio-economic conditions, access to social protection and basic services, financial inclusion, gender inequality, disability, and others (Calardo, 2020).


Leveraging existing programmes and policies

Graduation also utilizes inter-ministerial collaboration to leverage resources across various ministries and layer in holistic social and economic inclusion elements into existing policies and programmes. This ensures the most strategic investment of government programmes, leverages the expertise and both financial and human resources of various ministries, and enhances the long-term sustainability of social protection and related programmes. COVID-19 in particular has presented an unprecedented opportunity for increased and deliberate coordination across diverse ministries as need has demonstrated the benefit of a whole cross-government strategy as much greater than the sum of its individual ministry parts for populations in need during the pandemic.

Along with interlacing services across ministries for intended populations, Graduation’s layered approach also connects previously excluded participants to these existing government programmes. These may include cash transfers, labour and employment programmes, or national health insurance plans for which barriers to entry previously prevented households from accessing entitlements. These linkages help meet the complex needs of those experiencing extreme poverty while also strategically integrating participants into existing government programmes to improve cost effectiveness, sustainability, and inclusivity (Calardo, 2020).

By incorporating Graduation in existing social protection programmes, governments can enable these programmes to better serve people from marginalized communities and meet their long-term needs. This also leads to more sustainable livelihoods and meaningful engagement in the wider economy. Additionally, leveraging existing social protection systems makes Graduation better positioned to scale in order to reach the most people. As we look toward universal social protection, this ability to rapidly and effectively scale is crucial.


Incorporating Graduation into social protection programmes

In assessing the potential for future scale of Graduation programmes aiding the path to progressive universalism, there are a variety of pathways for Graduation to be incorporated into existing social protection programmes to increase their inclusivity and effectiveness (Dharmadasa, 2016). This includes embedding components of the Graduation approach within national social protection floor strategies, strengthening capacity and know-how of governments to successfully adapt foundational programmes such as introducing case management or household monitoring, and expanding the suite of available government partners in private sector and civil society to augment support. This can also include renewing endorsement of Graduation by multilateral institutions to incorporate in their strategic partnerships with government, and experimenting with Graduation pilots designed at the outset for national expansion.

Ultimately, it is critical that governments integrate holistic social and economic inclusion elements contextualized for relevant country dynamics to ensure the best outcome. Partnerships with NGOs and other CSOs can enhance governments’ capabilities and resources to best develop and deliver localized programmes both through relationships with local communities and through lessons learned through their own hands-on experience.

By integrating Graduation programmes into existing social protection programmes and adapting them to the specific needs of underserved participants, countries can progress toward universal coverage to empower the people facing the greatest marginalization and most often left behind by well-intended social protection systems.



Calardo, C. (2020). Adapting Programs to Meet the Needs of the World’s Poorest People. BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative. Accessible: https://bracultrapoorgraduation.medium.com/effectively-meeting-the-needs-of-the-worlds-poorest-people-requires-adaptability-2053f5bc7230

Calardo, C. (2020) Understanding the Costs of Graduation, Investing in Long-Term Gains. BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative. Accessible: https://bracultrapoorgraduation.medium.com/understanding-the-costs-of-graduation-investing-in-long-term-gains-b5f3b9ad1dfd

Dharmadasa, H., et al. (2016). Mainstreaming Graduation into Social Protection Floors. International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth. Accessible: https://ipcig.org/pub/eng/OP324_Mainstreaming_graduation_into_Social_Protection_floors.pdf

Miglani, S., and Siddiqui, D. (2021). Global concern grows as COVID-19 variant ravages rural India. Thomson Reuters Foundation. Accessible: https://www.reuters.com/world/india/indias-covid-deaths-cross-quarter-million-mark-no-sign-peak-2021-05-12/

Natour, R. (2021). Why Social Protection Systems Must Be More Inclusive of People Living In Extreme Poverty. BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative. Accessible: https://bracultrapoorgraduation.medium.com/why-social-protection-systems-must-be-more-inclusive-of-people-living-in-extreme-poverty-fa9413d848c0

Whitehead, L. (2020). Lessons Learned: How to Integrate Graduation into Existing Government Programming. BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative. Accessible: https://bracultrapoorgraduation.medium.com/lessons-learned-how-to-integrate-graduation-into-existing-programming-876cb4092e26

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
  • Labour market programs/Public work/Productive inclusion
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Programme graduation
  • Universal Social Protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Gender
  • Poverty
The views presented here are the author's and not socialprotection.org's