On 16 March 2021, ADB hosted, together with BRAC and with the support from socialprotection.org, a regional learning event on social protection for economic inclusion, which centred on the graduation approach as a key strategy for addressing remaining poverty and reducing inequality in Asia and the Pacific. The event highlighted key considerations for governments that are planning for, implementing, and scaling up the graduation approach. It shared new evidence from a randomized evaluation of a graduation program led by the Government of the Philippines and discussed lessons and insights on economic inclusion and support for poor and vulnerable households with technical experts focused on programme adaptation and scale.

If you missed the event or want to watch it again, you can find the recording of the event here and the presentation here.

The event featured 08 panels in different formats, including a keynote speech from Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee, Economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as expert panels with policymakers and researchers working in the field.

Below you can find a brief summary and main takeaways from each discussion. Further resources and event materials can be found at the Asia-Pacific Social Protection Online Community here at socialprotection.org. Feel free to join the OC and receive biweekly updates from our team.


ADB Opening Remarks

Bambang Susantono, Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, ADB, welcomed all participants and opened the event. He presented the pre-pandemic scenario of the region, which included 173 million people living under extreme poverty and another 864 million living on less than $3.20/day. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to have pushed an additional 78 million people into extreme poverty, reversing developing Asia’s poverty clock. The crisis has also disproportionately affected children, youth, women, older persons, and persons with disabilities. Moreover, 60% of the population was not covered by adequate social protection even prior to the crisis, despite its significant importance in protecting incomes and livelihoods. Given the multidimensional nature of poverty, it is important to explore innovative approaches within social protection that provide a holistic and multi-faceted set of interventions to help poor and vulnerable households transition to sustainable livelihoods. The graduation approach to poverty reduction is one such innovation. Built on the strong foundation of social assistance, graduation programmes enable poor households to achieve economic resilience through a combination of asset transfers, technical skills training, dedicated coaching and mentoring, and savings as well as psychosocial support. Mr. Bambang Susantono believes that graduation programmes can offer governments a promising pathway for meeting the needs of poor and vulnerable households, particularly when adapted to local contexts. The first graduation pilot programme in the Philippines shows encouraging results, helping to build household resilience across a range of dimensions as will be discussed during the event’s panel sessions.

See the full event’s opening here.

Opening speaker:

  • Bambang Susantono, Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development


Keynote Speech

Abhijit Banerjee, Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and recipient of the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, highlighted the consistency of the evidence on the core question on development: How much of the state of being poor comes from just having been born poor? The evidence comes from the Graduation Programmes as we look at the 10-year track of the beneficiaries of programmes in India. According to Mr. Banerjee, poverty persists because of the vicious cycle, but people who participated in the graduation programme increased their consumption and income by 25% in comparison to the control group. The difference between the control group and the benefit-granted group is smaller in the first three years and increased from year 3 to year 7, staying at its highest level since. Therefore, one-time benefits can have a long-term effect. A similar example of Bangladesh was also presented during his speech, but there is sufficient evidence to indicate that it also works across Latin America and Africa.

The other basic important questions that enhance the discussions are: What is driving this process? Why do we have these effects? According to Mr. Banerjee, there are multiple answers to these inquiries. Money enables people to get accesses, and look for jobs in distant places; it provides enthusiasm as well as productivity improvement caused by a psychological effect. That is a deep transformation insight that will hopefully be used in the future. The focus should also be in the quality of services provided and sorting inconsistencies out because they can be turned into consistencies. To reflect upon those aspects together is important to fill the gaps of designing graduation programmes in combination with other social insurance programmes.

If you want to watch the whole speech, access it here.

Keynote speaker:

  • Abhijit Banerjee, Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and recipient of the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel


Road to Resilience: The Graduation Approach in Asia and the Pacific

Kicking off the first session, Wendy Walker introduced the basic framing we are going through with the COVID-19 pandemic and asked Karin Schelzig about the short comings of cash transfer-based social assistance programmes in terms of building resilience. Karin stressed that the lack of money is not the only reason for poverty, and the conditionalities of some programmes work with these other facets, such as school attendance and health appointments. The multidimensional approach pays off as they give people stronger upfront resilience to resist shocks when combining assets, skills, and capability. The Graduation Approach aims at all those aspects, including productive assets, technical training and even  with coaching and mentoring. It is a tailored and individualized support to the beneficiaries.

Mr. Dean Karlan discussed some challenges of cash transfer programmes. A lot of these programmes are being operated in scale, which shows their viability, but there are still many doubts on how to combine the programmes, how to target better the beneficiaries, and what message should be given to them regarding the coaching.

Continuing the Graduation Approach topic, Mr. Shameran Abed shared his experience on the programmes he has been operating at BRAC. Stating the biggest aim since the design of those programmes as to create resilience to shocks, he observed that some characteristics of their programmes worked well when facing the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the examples was asset and income diversification so as not to depend on only one source of income. The second one is the reintegration to the community that enables the beneficiaries to better access local support and local governance support. Therefore, they were much more likely to access government stimulus. The third characteristic is access to financial services as participants managed to have savings during and after the programme. They also have access to loans and refinances, which helps to build resilience.

Yasuyuki Sawada, from ADB, praised BRAC’s innovation on the Targeting the Ultra Poor Programme (TUP) and the Graduation Model. Looking ahead, he shared that we have three main areas to work on to build resilience. The first one is to make the graduation programme and other SP programmes sustainable for individuals to climb up the ladder by, for example, creating quality jobs and business. The second one is to make fiscal policy for SP programmes effective and sustainable on the expenditure side and on revenue side. Lastly, it is to continue governance reforms to ensure the entire population enjoys adequate public services.

To learn more about this discussion, feel free to access the recording of the session here.


  • Dean Karlan, Founder and President, Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA)
  • Shameran Abed, Senior Director, Microfinance and Ultra-Poor Graduation Programs, BRAC
  • Yasuyuki Sawada, Chief Economist and Director General, ADB
  • Karin Schelzig, Principal Social Sector Specialist, ADB


  • Wendy Walker, Chief of Social Development Thematic Group, ADB


Graduation Approach: Building Blocks of Success

The second session started with Karin Schelzig introducing the building blocks of graduation methodology, which is a combination of interconnected support services addressing the multidimensionality of poverty for the poorest and most vulnerable. The elements of Graduation starting with social protection also include coaching and mentorship, livelihoods promotion, social empowerment, and financial inclusion. She didactyly explained the time bound nature and sequence of interventions with the following graph:


It was argued that Graduation leverages existing systems and investments through social transfers, cash or food transfers, and other government programmes such as agriculture, nutrition, and health support. Therefore, it addresses coverage gaps to households in need and complements existing governments programmes by building on and linking households to investments. Karin highlighted that ADB can support governments to incorporate economic inclusion into social protection or other programmes aiming at poverty reduction. 

Regarding the Graduation Design, Lauren Whitehead, from BRAC, shared her key considerations. First she explained the importance of having a comprehensive and holistic approach when it comes to targeting, which is the crucial first step. This can start with the national registry that most countries already have and get complemented with household surveys. In the following steps, the core barriers and vulnerabilities are assessed to determinate what the most pressing ones are to form the basis for key interventions. After that, they look at the national and local levels for existing government programmes to leverage human resources needed. Lastly, to best gauge long-term impact, graduation criteria are used to determine a household’s progress against social and economic welfare indicators that predict resilience and a sustainable trajectory from poverty.

To finish the presentation, Whitehead presented how graduation truly helps build economic resilience for households through:

  • Targeted household segmentation;
  • Resourced and trained frontline staff;
  • Iterative rapid monitoring for adaptation;
  • Localized market assessments;
  • Partnerships with financial service providers;
  • Established government resource linkages;
  • Developed community resource linkages.

To watch the full panel, please access it here.


  • Karin Schelzig, Principal Social Sector Specialist, ADB
  • Lauren Whitehead, Director of Technical Assistance, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative (UPGI)


Lessons from adapting Graduation in the Philippines

The Assistant Secretary of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), Government of the Philippines, Mr. Alex Avila presented the Lessons from adapting Graduation in his country. The Graduation Pilot happened from 2018 to 2019 and was implemented by DOLE, targeting 1,800 households across 3 cities and 2 municipalities in Negros Occidental (Western Visayas). Their initial key findings were that, on average, 71% of the pilot households met all of the context-specific graduation criteria, and thus were considered graduated. Participants reported knowledge retention on life skills training topics, were able to launch sustainable livelihood and generate income, and demonstrated increased savings and positive behaviour change. Furthermore, the combination of individual livelihoods and group coaching appear to be the optimal configuration of Graduation programming for government implementation.

As for the key success factors, Mr. Alex highlighted the integration of experienced Graduation facilitators into the implementation team, institutionalization of the family development plan, the use of internet-based tools which ensured real-time monitoring of the livelihood projects and the constitution of the oversight, management and implementation structures at the central and operations levels, ensuring unity of command and providing an open space for joint planning, joint problem-solving and decision-making.

To close his presentation, Mr. Avila presented the main constraints and challenges. First, he talked about navigating through bureaucratic mindset, processes and practices of fund disbursements and asset acquisition as the government is the main financer of the programmes. There is also a high attrition rate that causes the extension of the Graduation. Lastly, Mr. Avila discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic and the community restrictions drastically changed the landscape and the strategies. Besides all those challenges, there are still many windows of opportunities for graduation adaptation.

To know more about the Philippines experience, watch the presentation here.


  • Alex Avila, Assistant Secretary for Labor Relations, Social Protection and Policy Support, Department of Labor and Employment, Government of the Philippines


Implementation insights from Graduation in the Philippines

On the next panel, Dristy Shrestha and Marlowe Pope from BRAC gave a presentation about the central implementation insights from the Graduation pilot in the Philippines. In the case of the DOLE Graduation Project, a RCT was conducted to identify the differential impacts between group and individual livelihoods and coaching among participant households, with end line due in 2021. Through BRAC’s regular household monitoring data, the following five key findings were highlighted:

  • On average, 71% of pilot households met all graduation criteria;
  • Participant’s retention of knowledge on life skill training topics was positive, showing positive behaviour changes;
  • Even during COVID-19, participants were able to launch sustainable livelihoods and generate income;
  • Participants demonstrated increased savings;
  • The combination of individual livelihoods and group coaching proved to be the optimal configuration for government implementation.

In terms of the identified challenges, the evaluators highlighted participant attrition, delays in asset delivery, Coryza Avian flu, challenges associated with Group Livelihoods, and the COVID-19 crisis. On the other hand, there was an increase in consumption of vegetable and fruits, and more households reported treating water as a standard practice, as emphasized by WASH training.

Additionally, more households demonstrated positive financial savings and management, showing positive results in this aspect as well. As key lessons, the presenters pointed out the value of alternative asset distribution mechanisms (as in assistance cash or vouchers) to address the asset procurement issues, coaching as a crucial strategy for engagement, among other concluding remarks based on the key findings.

To learn more about the topic, feel free to access the recording of the session here.


  • Marlowe Popes, Field Manager, BRAC UPGI
  • Dristy Shrestha, Technical Advisor, BRAC UPGI


Preliminary Evidence from Impact Evaluation of Graduation in the Philippines

In the last session, we had Mr. Yasuyuki Sawada, from ADB, as moderator, and researcher Emily Beam, from IPA, as speaker. They shared details about the impact evaluation of the pilot graduation programme from the Philippines, presenting some insights from an impact evaluation study conducted in August 2020, together with the end of the pilot activities.

Emily Beam explained how the impact evaluation initiative gave a broad idea about the effectiveness of the graduation programme in Philippines. It was highlighted that the study was an important complement to the research that Dristy Shrestha and Marlowe Popes shared, as it was able to compare the outcomes, not only before the pilot but also from those who were not selected to receive the benefits from the pilot of the graduation programme. Beam also presented how the research was conducted, the methodology and the main results of the impact evaluation study. For the conclusions, Beam emphasized that, although the programme faced some implementation challenges, it had positive impacts across multiple measures – promoting resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic, for example.

Both panelists proceeded to a section of questions from the audience and discussed how to understand the role of a graduation programme in building household resilience. Furthermore, it was also debated the cases in which families could not graduate and what can be done on these cases.

To learn more about the discussion, feel free to access the recording of this panel here.


  • Emily Beam, Researcher, IPA


  • Yasuyuki Sawada, Chief Economist and Director General, ADB


Closing remarks

The closing remarks given by Director General Bruno Carrasco wrapped-up the day by highlighting central takeaways from the event.

Carrasco agreed that graduation programmes offer a promising solution to promote long-term positive change and build resilience among the poor and vulnerable. The examples and evaluations presented during the event showed there is evidence in favour of the graduation approach as an effective solution to extreme poverty. 

As the Covid-19 pandemic still progresses, this is a particularly opportune moment to be discussing the relevance and promise of the graduation approach, particularly since governments are redesigning and reconsidering their social protection policies. In this context, innovative approaches are needed to strengthen social protection systems. The examples of the Philippines and four new graduation programmes across three countries have provided lessons on how the graduation approach can build on existing welfare programmes with the addition of several components to make social transfers deliver long-term sustainable impacts.

The closing session also highlighted a few challenges and next steps for poverty reduction programmes, such as future considerations on the design of social insurance in combination with graduation interventions.

To get a full understanding of Carrasco’s speech, access the recording of this session here.


  • Mr. Bruno Carrasco, Director General, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department, ADB


Feel free to have a look at the Event-related materials and leave your comments in the chat box below!

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • All programmes
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Programme graduation
  • Social protection systems
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Poverty
  • Resilience
  • Risk and vulnerability
  • Social inclusion
  • Global
  • East Asia & Pacific
  • South Asia
The views presented here are the author's and not socialprotection.org's