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Engaging elite support for the poorest? BRAC's Targeted Ultra Poor programme for rural women in Bangladesh

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This article draws preliminary lessons from the experience of engaging village elites in support of a BRAC programme for ultra-poor women in rural Bangladesh. It describes the origins, aims, and operation of this programme, which provides comprehensive livelihood support and productive assets to the extreme poor. Based on field research in the rural north-west, the article examines the conditions under which elites can support interventions for the ultra-poor, and the risks and benefits of such engagement. It describes the impact of committees mandated to support ultra-poor programme participants, and attempts to understand the somewhat paradoxical success of this intervention. Conclusions and lessons from the experience involve revisiting assumptions that dominate scholarship and programmes relating to the politics of poverty in rural Bangladesh.
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Engaging Elite Support
for the Poorest?
BRAC’s Experience
with the Ultra Poor Programme
Naomi Hossain
Imran Matin
CFPR-TUP Working Paper Series No. 3
September 2004
Published by:
BRAC
Research and Evaluation Division
Aga Khan Foundation Canada
Funded by:
Canadian International Development Agency
ii
CFPR-TUP Working Paper Series No. 3
Copyright 2004 BRAC
September 2004
Cover design
Shajedur Rahman
Publisher:
BRAC
BRAC Centre, 75 Mohakhali, Dhaka 1212, Bangladesh
E-mail : research@brac.net Fax: 880-2-8823542, 8823614
Telephone : 9881265, 8824051, 8824180-87 Website: www.brac.net
and
Aga Khan Foundation Canada
360 Albert Street, Suite 1220
Ottawa, ON K1R 7X7, Canada
Telephone: 613.237.AKFC (2532), Fax: 613.567.AKFC (2532)
Website:
www.akfc.ca
BRAC/RED publishes research reports, scientific papers, monographs, working papers, research
compendium in Bangla (Nirjash), proceedings, manuals, and other publications on subjects
relating to poverty, social development, health, nutrition, education, gender, and environment.
Printed by BRAC Printers, 87-88 (old) 41 (new), Block C, Tongi Industrial Area, Gazipur, Bangladesh
This working paper is published under the BRAC-AKFC Learning Partnership Project for CFPR/TUP
with funding support from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).The goal of the
project is to contribute to improved poverty reduction and poverty targeting policies and practices. This
partnership project supports the generation and dissemination of lessons, models, methodologies and best
practices from CFPR/TUP to other organizations and practitioners around the world with an interest in
reaching and serving the needs of the ultra poor.
iii
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Foreword v
Abstract 1
Introduction 2
The specially targeted ultra poor programme 3
Engaging village elite 6
Impact 8
Understanding elite support for the poorest: Factors underlying GSC effectiveness 11
Conclusion 15
References 16
iv
FOREWORD
Over a quarter of Bangladesh’s people live in extreme poverty, not being able to meet even the barest of
the basic needs. They spend most of their meagre, unreliable earnings on food and yet fail to fulfil the
minimum calorie intake needed to stave off malnutrition. They are consequently in frequent poor health
causing further drain on their meagre resources due to loss of income and health expenses. More often
than not, the extreme poor are invisible even in their own communities, living on other peoples’ land,
having no one to speak up for them or assist them in ensuring their rights. Extreme poverty also has a
clear gendered face – they are mostly women who are dispossessed widows, and abandoned.
The extreme poor are thus caught in a vicious trap and the story of denial and injustices tend to continue
over generations for a large majority of them. Thus, a vast majority of the extreme poor in Bangladesh are
chronically so. The constraints they face in escaping extreme poverty are interlocked in ways that are
different from those who are moderately poor. This challenges us to rethink our existing development
strategies and interventions for the extreme poor, and come up with better ones that work for them. This is
the challenge that drove BRAC to initiate an experimental programme since 2002 called, ‘Challenging the
Frontiers of Poverty Reduction: Targeting the Ultra Poor’ programme. The idea to address the constraints
that they face in asset building, in improving their health, in educating their children, in getting their
voices heard, in a comprehensive manner so that they too can aspire, plan, and inch their way out of
poverty.
The extreme poor have not only been bypassed by most development programmes, but also by
mainstream development research. We need to know much more about their lives, struggles, and lived
experiences. We need to understand better why such extreme poverty persists for so many of them for so
long, often over generations. Without such knowledge, we cannot stand by their side and help in their
struggles to overcome their state.
I am pleased that BRAC’s Research and Evaluation Division has taken up the challenge of beginning to
address some of these development knowledge gaps through serious research and reflection. In order to
share the findings from research on extreme poverty, the ‘CFPR/TUP Research Working Paper Series’
has been initiated. This is being funded by CIDA through the ‘BRAC-Aga Khan Foundation Canada
Learning Partnership for CFPR/TUP’ project. I thank CIDA and AKFC for supporting the dissemination
of our research on extreme poverty.
I hope this working paper series will benefit development academics, researchers, and practitioners in not
only gaining more knowledge but also in inspiring actions against extreme poverty in Bangladesh and
elsewhere.
Fazle Hasan Abed
Chairperson, BRAC
v
Engaging Elite Support for the Poorest?
BRAC’s Experience with the Ultra Poor Programme
ABSTRACT
This paper describes and draws lessons from the experience of engaging village elites in
support of the ultrapoor through the Gram Shahayak Committees (GSC), as part of
BRAC’s CFPR/TUP programme. The paper addresses the following questions: under
what conditions can elites become engaged in support of interventions for the ultrapoor?
What are the risks and benefits of engaging elite in antipoverty programmes? After
describing the origins and motivations behind BRAC’s Specially Targeted Ultrapoor
(TUP) programme, the paper goes on to explain how an important lesson from the
programme as it evolved included the need for on-site, village-based protection and
support for TUP participants and their newly-acquired assets. The paper goes on to
explore some of the early impacts of the Gram Shahayak Committees which were formed
to fill this need, and to assess the motivations and factors underlying their effectiveness
and success. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the lessons from the
experience, including their implications for assumptions that dominate scholarship and
programmes relating to the rural politics of poverty in Bangladesh.
Elite support for the poorest
1
INTRODUCTION
This paper describes and draws preliminary
lessons from the experience of engaging
village elites in support of a programme for
ultrapoor women in rural Bangladesh. It
addresses the following questions: under what
conditions can elites become engaged in
support of interventions for the ultrapoor?
What are the risks and benefits of engaging
elites in antipoverty programmes?
In section 2 the paper outlines the
origins, aims and operation of BRAC’s
Specially Targeted Ultrapoor programme
(TUP programme). It then goes on to explain
the decision to experiment with engaging
village elite support through Gram Shahayak
Committees (GSC; Village Assistance Com-
mittees). Section 4 looks at the impact of
these Committees on the programme and the
ultrapoor. Section 5 attempts to explain the
factors underlying this impact, including
exploring elite motivations for involvement.
Section 6 draws some conclusions and lessons
from the experience, exploring some vital
assumptions that dominate scholarship and
programmes relating to the politics of poverty
in its extreme forms in rural Bangladesh.
This paper is based on a series of field
research activities undertaken by staff of the
Research and Evaluation Division, including
a survey of 160 GSCs in April-May 2004;
interviews and focus group discussions with
TUP members and GSC members in three
Northern districts and with field and head
office staff between January and June 2004;
and Process Documentation Research into the
TUP targeting and selection processes (in
2002) and on the formation of GSCs (2003).
1
The paper also draws on programme activity
data collected by local area offices and on
research and other assessment work
undertaken by external consultants and
researchers (cited where relevant).
___________________________________________________________
1
This includes field research and research in progress by Mamun-ur-Rashid and Md. Hasanur Rahman of RED.
Elite support for the poorest
2
THE SPECIALLY TARGETED ULTRA POOR PROGRAMME
Extreme poverty in Bangladesh
Depending on methods used, recent estimates
suggest that as much as 20 to 34 per cent of
the population of Bangladesh lives in extreme
poverty (Table 1). This is a significant num-
ber of people requiring immediate and special
attention, if Bangladesh is to fulfil its commit-
ment towards attaining the Millennium Devel-
opment Goals (MDG) which underpins its
Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP).
Focusing policy attention towards the
extreme poor is important because their exist-
ing opportunities can be severely constrained
due to mismatches between the structure of
opportunities available and the complex struc-
ture of constraints they face. For instance, it is
by now accepted that mainstream develop-
ment approaches, especially microfinance,
largely bypass the extreme poor. However,
evidence also suggests that microfinance has
provided an important opportunity for moder-
ate poor households to overcome poverty and
reduce vulnerability (Khandker 1998; Mor-
duch 1998). Market-mediated opportunities
may also bypass the extreme poor because
they lack the human and social capital needed
to participate and benefit from such oppor-
tunities, and/or because they live in areas or
belong to ethnicities that are bypassed or
excluded due to their lack of voice and
representation in policy-making processes.
On all the expected dimensions – land
ownership, food security, health and nutrition,
educational status – the ultra poor fare subs-
tantially worse than the rural national
average.
2
A particularly important challenge
to improving the livelihoods of the ultrapoor
is their low initial stocks of social capital.
Dimensions of poverty in Bangladesh
generally include ‘poverty in people’, but in
this respect the ultrapoor are poorer than the
average, while 8 per cent of rural households
are headed by women, fully 40 per cent of
ultrapoor households as targeted by BRAC
are women-headed households. Again, while
only 2 per cent of rural households are
households of one person, as many as 12 per
cent of the ultrapoor are single member
households. Incorporation into valued social
networks tends to come, for the poor, at the
high price of exploitative yet reasonably
secure forms of dependency (Wood 2000;
2003). A defining characteristic of the
ultrapoor is their inability to even achieve
‘adverse incorporation’ into relations of
dependency, relations which may at least
ensure security, although at a cost (Wood
2000). In BRAC’s own experience, social
networks to protect ultrapoor participants
were initially so weak as to entail risks to the
programme itself, as distributed assets were at
risk of damage or theft from within the
community.
2
Baseline data indicate, for example, that 48% of
BRAC-targeted ultra poor households cannot afford
two meals a day as compared to 8% of the national
rural average, and a mere 20% of targeted ultra poor
house-holds have a literate member as compared to
58% of the national rural average.
Elite support for the poorest
3
Table 1. Progress in poverty reduction: poverty and extreme poverty compared
Variables HIES 2000 HIES 1995-96
National Rural Urban National Rural Urban
Less than 2122 kcal/person/day 44% 42% 53% 48% 47% 50%
Less than 1805 kcal/person/day 20% 19% 25% 25% 25% 27%
Upper poverty line head count (CBN method) 50% 53% 37% 53% 57% 35%
Lower poverty line head count (CBN method) 34% 37% 19% 34% 39% 14%
Source: Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (2003)
The origins of TUP: reaching down to the
poorest
In January 2002, BRAC started a new pro-
gramme for the extreme poor called Chal-
lenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction/
Targeting the Ultra Poor (CFPR/TUP) pro-
gramme. An historical perspective on
BRAC’s development programmes helps to
explain its current engagement with the
extreme poor. BRAC has been concerned
with developing programmes for the extreme
poor since its beginnings in 1972. Its
foundational work began with addressing the
immediate needs of the refugees who returned
home after the Bangladesh freedom struggle
of 1971. Gradually, BRAC moved beyond
relief work to building sustainable livelihoods
of the poor with a particular focus on women
through an incrementally wide range of
development programmes in the areas of
microfinance, sector programmes, education,
health, nutrition, and social development. The
concern with the extreme poor in BRAC’s
microfinance programme, for instance, can be
seen in its official definition of eligibility. In
addition to the standard ‘less than 50 decimals
of owned cultivable land’ criterion used by
most microfinance institutions, BRAC also
uses ‘household selling at least 100 days of
manual labour’ as an official expression of its
commitment to include the very poor.
However, BRAC came to realise that
microfinance alone is not as suitable an entry
point and intervention for the extreme poor as
it is for the moderate poor. Severe malnutri-
tion and hunger typically characterises the
situation of the extreme poor, and without
immediate attention to addressing these cons-
traints, microfinance would fail them. Yet,
mere food aid provides short term relief
without building any foundations for sustain-
able change. This was the driving motivation
for BRAC in approaching the World Food
Programme (WFP) in 1985 to pilot a
‘laddered strategic linkage’ approach that
would transform WFP’s feeding programme
for the extreme poor then called Vulnerable
Group Feeding Programme (VGF) into the
nation-wide Income Generation for
Vulnerable Group Development (IGVGD)
programme.
3
The basic idea was to leverage
the two-year food aid period supported by
WFP through appropriate income generation
and social development training, develop a
regular savings habit, provide small amounts
of microcredit and offer the opportunity of
eventual inclusion into BRAC’s mainstream
development programmes through member-
ship of its village organisations.
What started off as a BRAC pilot to
bring the extreme poor within the fold of its
microfinance and other development pro-
grammes is today a nation-wide programme
working with over 1.2 million extreme poor
and vulnerable women in 268 upazilas.
4
Almost 70 per cent of the women who join
3
For reviews of the IGVGD programme, see, Hashemi
(2001); Matin and Hulme (2003); Matin and Yasmin
(2004).
4
The lowest administrative unit of the government of
Bangladesh. There are 507 upazilas (BBS 2002).
Elite support for the poorest
4
BRAC’s VOs through the IGVGD
programme manage to continue as active
microfinance members. However, those who
do not continue as stable microfinance
members are also among the poorest and the
most vulnerable (Webb et al. 2001).
Moreover, many extreme poor women also
lack the social networks necessary to obtain
Vulnerable Group Development mem-
bership, which is decided by local govern-
ment representatives at the Union Parishad
level (Matin and Hulme 2003).
The IGVGD experiences of BRAC
were central to the development of the new
programme for the extreme poor. The basic
idea of a staged/laddered strategic linkage is
also used in the new CFPR/TUP programme.
However, the approach is more systematic,
intensive, and comprehensive, covering econ-
omic, social, and health aspects. The main
components of the CFPR/TUP programme are
summarized in Table 2.
The aim of the CFPR/TUP programme
is to build a more sustainable livelihood for
the extreme poor: a solid economic, social
and human foundation which would allow
them to overcome extreme poverty in a sus-
tainable manner.
While it is too early to comment on
the long-term success of the TUP programme,
independent reviews in 2003 and 2004 both
concluded that the programme had to date
shown good results. A 2004 review concluded
that the programme had a) produced solid
results in terms of enabling extremely poor
women to improve their livelihoods; b) had
done so relatively cost effectively; and c) to
the extent that such comparisons are meaning-
ful, was comparatively more effective at
improving the livelihoods of extremely poor
women in rural Bangladesh (Posgate et al.
2004). The programme aims to reach 70,000
ultrapoor women in the poorest districts of the
country by 2006. By 2004, the programme
operated in 14 districts with 20,000 ultrapoor
women.
Table 2. The CFPR/TUP programme components and their purpose
Component Purpose
Integrated targeting methodologies Effective targeting of the extreme poor
Income generating asset transfer Build economic asset base
Income generation training and regular refreshers Ensure good return from asset transferred
Technical follow-up of enterprise operations Ensure good return from asset transferred
Provision of all support inputs for the enterprise Ensure good return from asset transferred
Monthly stipends Reduce the opportunity cost of asset operations
Health support Reduce costly morbidity
Social development Knowledge and awareness of rights and justice
Mobilization of local elite for support Create an enabling environment
Elite support for the poorest
5
ENGAGING VILLAGE ELITES
Given that an important dimension of extreme
poverty in rural Bangladesh is weak social
networks or social capital, the original pro-
gramme design envisaged a process of
building the social support networks of TUP
participants through a strategy of ‘pushing
out’, or building links and support networks
with other groups and organisations. These
were to include existing BRAC village orga-
nisations of microcredit borrowers, who
tended to include poor, but rarely ultrapoor
women members. Local government officials
were also to be encouraged to take an interest
in the programme through a targeted advo-
cacy and communications strategy designed
to highlight its achievements in addressing the
most severe and chronic forms of poverty.
That is, social capital was to be built both
through stronger horizontal networks, among
the poor, but also through vertical links to
official structures.
Early on in the process of distributing
assets to TUP participants, however, BRAC
staff recognised that the programme was
likely to face a number of problems (BRAC,
2002). One was that some participants began
to appeal directly to BRAC staff for assis-
tance and advice, sometimes travelling long
distances to do so. In effect, participants
began to treat BRAC staff as patrons. A
second was that assets given to these
extremely poor women appeared to be at risk
from theft or damage, including from some
community members who were jealous of the
programme beneficiaries. In the initial stages
of asset distribution in some villages, there
were instances when BRAC microfinance
group members displayed their resentment
against TUP participants whom they felt were
receiving gifts from BRAC, while they, as
conscientious BRAC loan group members,
had received nothing free. In the early stages
at least, it was not clear that TUP participants
were likely to gain strong support from
BRAC microfinance group members, many of
whom had tended to exclude the ultrapoor
from membership of their groups. Lacking
any strong social support from the poor within
the community, then, ultrapoor women were
unlikely to be in a position to protect their
newly gained assets.
The need for an intervention which
could provide TUP participants with en-
during, day-to-day, on-site support was clear.
With their experience and knowledge gained
over two decades working with poor rural
women in microcredit programmes, BRAC
Programmes staff recognised that, despite the
limited scope of customary sources of social
support, the programme should avoid under-
mining or replacing these altogether. Under-
mining older, village-based practices of assis-
tance to the poor would be an undesirable
side-effect of the programme because it
would reduce the range of potential sources of
support available to these groups. But a more
practical concern was the need to ensure that
such assistance was available at close reach,
within the local community. Not being com-
munity members or residents, BRAC staff
would not have been in a position to provide
all the support and protection needed by
ultrapoor households, even if this had been an
objective of the programme.
Elite support for the poorest
6
Against this background of an inno-
vative pilot programme evolving to tackle
problems as they emerged, programme man-
agement proved responsive to the concerns
and views of field staff. The decision was
taken to engage village elites in the pro-
gramme. The aims of this intervention with
village elites were to maintain or even streng-
then customary systems of social support for
the poorest, while also providing some more
systematic, community-level protection
against the social and environmental risks
characteristically faced by the rural ultrapoor.
The decision highlights the signifi-
cance for the design and implementation of
rural antipoverty programmes of two coexis-
ting yet somewhat contradictory working
‘theories’ of the relationship between village
elites and the poor. The first derives from the
hard lessons of BRAC and other organisa-
tions from the 1970s, when efforts to achieve
poverty reduction through community-wide
programmes resulted in elite capture of
benefits, in some cases leading to tighter
control by the village rich over the poor.
Studies such as those by BRAC (1980),
Hartmann and Boyce (1983) and Arens and
Van Beurden (1980) used class theoretic and
Marxist-inspired analyses of rural Bangla-
deshi life to highlight how entrenched struc-
tures and practices, including the vicious
cycle of impoverishment which resulted from
money-lending practices, enabled the landed
village rich to oppress the increasingly land-
less village poor. The chief programmatic
lesson of this scholarly thinking about rural
Bangladeshi society is that efforts to tackle
poverty should seek to organise and target the
poor separately from the rest of the com-
munity, and to do so in ways that sought to
break the control of village elites over the
poor.
The second working theory BRAC
staff bring to field operations, however, is the
more homely recognition that in practice,
poor people depend to some degree on the
patronage, protection, and/or charity of
village elites. With their considerable knowl-
edge and experience of working within rural
communities, BRAC staff are aware of the
important role played by village elites in the
lives of the rural poor. A calculation of the
risks and benefits from engaging village elites
in a guided intervention resulted in the belief
that the ultrapoor programme, and the TUP
participants, would on balance benefit from
the engagement of village elites.
Verbal directives from head office
guided the establishment of what came to be
known as Gram Shahayak Committees
(Village Assistance Committees). These
volunteer committees were to include seven
members, including the BRAC staff member
responsible for social development activities
in the area, a representative from among the
TUP participants, and where possible, two
representatives from another organisation
from the BRAC family, that of the Palli
Samaj, which is a ward level federation of
village level BRAC VOs. The remaining
members (between three and six) were to be
drawn from among respected members of the
local community, through a process of guided
selection. Process documentation research
indicates that GSC formation involved the
transmission of messages about the traditional
responsibilities of village elites with respect
to the poor, through a brief series of
interactions and village-level discussions
organised by BRAC staff. Gram Shahayak
Committees (GSCs) are mandated to protect
TUP participants in crisis; help resolve their
problems, including ensuring health services,
food, advice and protection; provide them
with sanitary latrines, clean water and house
repairs; and ensure school-aged children of
TUP participants are enrolled in school.
Elite support for the poorest
7
IMPACT
Each village in which the TUP programme
operates is expected to form a GSC, through
the advocacy, motivational and organisational
efforts of BRAC staff members responsible
for social development activities within the
CFPR programme. There is considerable vari-
ation in the degree of activity among GSCs,
but an aggregate picture of their contribution
towards improving the livelihoods of the
ultrapoor can be gained from figures reported
from the local area offices, gathered from the
BRAC staff members who are members of the
GSCs.
Table 3. GSC activities report (cumulative
figures from January 2002 to July
2004)
Number of GSCs formed 1,013
Fund mobilized (in USD) 36,160
Number of tubewells installed 457
Number of latrines installed 1,001
Number of houses repaired 1,424
Number of ultra poor supported for
medical treatment
1,926
Number of children from ultra poor
household enrolled in schools
2,102
Number of ultra poor child births
registered
3,697
While this aggregate report includes
data from newly established GSCs, and can
be supplemented by other information sources
such as a survey of 160 older GSCs (those
established in 2002) undertaken by the
Research and Evaluation Division in 2004.
While there are considerable variations in the
degree of activity among the more established
GSCs the survey indicates that on average,
GSCs established for more than two years had
to date mobilised resources in cash and kind
amounting to over Tk. 6000, repaired or built
five houses in each village, installed four
sanitary latrines and two tubewells for the use
of TUP members, and had spent more than
Tk. 200 on each TUP member for medical
treatment (Matin 2004).
Some of the more important impacts
of the GSCs are the most difficult to observe.
These include the protection – whether latent
or active – afforded by public knowledge
within the community that members of the
local elite were overseeing and protecting the
participants and their assets. The difficulty in
gauging the actual impact of the GSCs in this
respect is that all villages in which the TUP
programme is in operation have also estab-
lished GSCs. These are to a greater and lesser
degree active in supporting the TUP parti-
cipants. However, the process of forming the
Committees ensures community-wide knowl-
edge that members of the local elite are
involved in the programme. This knowledge
significantly reduces the risks that assets, in
particular, will be damaged or stolen. Where
TUP members’ assets have been damaged or
threatened, GSC members have taken direct
action, in some cases by calling shalish, or
traditional dispute resolution ‘courts’ to
resolve the problem.
Even less tangible consequences of the
presence of GSCs are that they appear to
bestow a degree of local legitimacy and
ownership on the programme. Interviews and
discussions with GSC members reveal some
pride in the achievements of these ultrapoor
Elite support for the poorest
8
women, whose living conditions and pros-
pects were so poor previously that they were
routinely written off as beyond help. It is
perhaps because GSCs mobilise community
resources that there is a sense of the pro-
gramme as a local success, rather than merely
as the intervention of an external organisa-
tion. The local legitimacy of the programme
also appears to derive substantially from the
careful process of targeting and selection, in
which community participation in mapping
and wealth ranking processes was vital to the
accuracy of the final selection of participants
(Matin and Halder 2002; BRAC/RED 2004).
The GSCs also appear to have con-
tributed to qualitative changes in the lives of
the ultrapoor. Positive impacts include the
widening of their social networks, and
reported improvements in the extent of their
inclusion within the village community social
life. Some TUP participants report being
invited to festivals and weddings from which
they had previously been excluded: ‘now they
call us to eat’. The significance of such inclu-
sion within Bangladeshi village society is that
may also entail access to charitable gifts and
forms of protection associated with religious
duties.
In some cases, the responsibility of
GSC members to ensure TUP women receive
healthcare entails accompanying them to
health facilities beyond the immediate village
area: for some these accompanied visits are an
introduction to the world beyond their homes.
TUP representatives on the GSCs are also
exposed to the highly male sphere of village-
level decision-makers through their regular
contact with the important and respected local
persons who constitute their fellow committee
members. While it is undoubtedly the case
that the most confident among the TUP
participants are selected for this role in the
first place, these women tend to be consi-
derably more outspoken, articulate and
capable than could be expected given their
extremely poor rural backgrounds. In a dis-
cussion with one GSC, we were told that the
eloquent TUP member on the Committee ‘had
not been able to speak before’, reflecting the
reality that poor rural women in Bangladesh
are rarely heard and routinely silenced, parti-
cularly in public spaces.
Inclusion within village society helped
by the engagement of village elites also brings
with it, however, greater reliance on patron-
age by ultrapoor women. Evidence suggests
that the TUP participants who benefit most
from the activities of the new Committees are
those who had the best social relations with
GSC members before the TUP programme
started, and who were most likely to have had
some support in the past. GSC members
themselves explain their activities as in line
with, or as an extension of ‘traditional’ social
welfare activities, which in most cases also
means as the activities associated with rural
patronage. While there is the risk that GSCs
may merely harden pre-existing structures of
dependency, GSCs represent a departure from
old-style patronage in key respects. Their
activities extend beyond those of traditional
patrons in both style and substance. We see,
for example, that ultrapoor women who
previously had no chance of gaining access to
local government resources (warm clothes in
the cold weather, relief goods) are now better-
placed to secure such statutory ‘rights’.
Ultrapoor women are also able to conduct
their livelihood activities with a greater sense
of security, knowing that their assets are at
least nominally protected by powerful village
elite. In these respects, GSC activities move
beyond the acts of a patron to act as a kind of
corrective against the features of bad gov-
ernance at the village which most afflict the
poorest.
Elite support for the poorest
9
In addition, more among the ultrapoor
benefit from the protection of GSCs than was
previously the case, including those pre-
viously excluded from patron-client relation-
ships. As was noted above, a defining feature
of extreme poverty in Bangladesh is exclusion
from the net of patronage: the destitute are by
definition too poor or too marginal to be valu-
able clients. To some degree, engaging village
elites in support of the TUP programme is a
means of garnering some of the basic benefits
of elite protection for the TUP participants.
These may be the extra benefits of charity or
patronage and may involve new or renewed
dependence on patrons, but they are as often
nothing more than the chance to build
livelihoods in an environment which would
otherwise be – and has previously been -
hostile to such attempts.
There are slight but definite sugges-
tions that the more active Committees may
also have wider positive consequences for the
village poor and for local institutions. In the
2004 survey of 160 GSCs, 75 per cent
reported having discussed helping other poor
people in their village, and 43 per cent
reported having helped other poor people,
suggesting that at least some GSCs are
beginning to extend their remit, or to view
their responsibilities as extending beyond the
immediate programme aims. But some are
clearly more successful and active than
others, and in a classic example of success-
breeding-success, survey data analysis shows
that those GSCs that raise more resources and
from a greater diversity of sources are also
more likely to expand their remit to cover
other poor people (Matin 2004). The
conditions underlying effective GSCs will be
looked at more closely below. But it is worth
pointing out that the GSC provides a village
community-level focal point and institutional
basis for mobilising resources and organising
support activities exclusively for the village
poor. This provides an institutional focus on
the poor which may otherwise be lacking.
One final village-wide impact which is
of interest is the use of GSCs as a vehicle to
promote awareness of the need for sanitation
facilities for the poor. One clear incentive for
GSCs to support the poorest was created by
BRAC staff explaining how all – and not just
the poor - are affected by the diseases associa-
ted with the lack of sanitary facilities among
the poor. This appears to have been new
information for many village leaders, and to
have helped galvanise them into providing
sanitary latrines for the poorest. Similar ex-
periences with advocacy among village elites
are also reported by Kar (2003) through the
Village Education Resource Centre (VERC)
approach to total sanitation in other parts of
Bangladesh.
Elite support for the poorest
10
UNDERSTANDING ELITE SUPPORT FOR THE POOREST:
FACTORS UNDERLYING GSC EFFECTIVENESS
Elite motivations
It is worth reiterating that GSCs are com-
mittees of volunteers who receive not even
token remuneration, and whose activities are
rarely publicised beyond the village commu-
nity. Their modest but concrete achievements,
not least the vital support in the form of the
‘enabling environment’ (as one Programme
Manager put it) they provide the programme
with have also been leveraged with little
additional resources from BRAC, other than
the part-time organisational efforts of staff
responsible for social development aspects of
the programme. An understanding of the
motivations of village elites for supporting the
programme and of the factors underlying the
effectiveness of GSCs will be of interest to
researchers, NGO staff and activists seeking
to work with the poor, and in particular to
those attempting to work with the even more
challenging group of the ultrapoor.
It is not obvious why village elites in
Bangladesh may support antipoverty inter-
venetions, as the common assumption is that
the rich oppose efforts to reduce poverty
because they benefit from its persistence. For
this reason it is worth looking first at how
village elites might be adversely affected by
the programme.
Field research and independent review
work suggest that there are indeed village
elites who believe their material or status
interests have been adversely affected by the
TUP programme. In many TUP programme
sites, the view has been expressed by TUP
participants, other villagers and indeed even
the local rich, that the programme had
reduced the availability of cheap labour. In
one village, wages for day labourers are
reported to have risen. In another, a TUP par-
ticipant reportedly declined a request to work
in a wealthy household on the grounds that
her labour was now worth far more than
before the programme (Posgate et al. 2004).
However, material interests are not
always fixed and may compete against other
interests. So when the village rich complain
that they find it difficult to get cheap labour,
they also know that this means a reduction in
the burden of charity they are legitimately
expected to bear. The availability of cheap
labour is always seen as an economic resource
for rich households, yet it may also be a cost:
rich women frequently claim to give poor
women ‘work’ as a form of assistance to
destitute neighbours, when they could in fact
manage well enough themselves. Such ‘work’
(from one point of view) and ‘help’ (from the
other) is the substance of rich-poor relations
at village level. It involves far more than a
relationship between employee and employer,
as it is the primary exchange involved in the
rural dependency relationship on which the
poorest depend – in those cases in which they
are fortunate enough to have a patron. Signi-
ficantly, some TUP members still occasional-
ly work in their former employers' houses,
highlighting the importance of other, non-
wage benefits from the patronage relation-
ship. In any case, it seems that at least some
Elite support for the poorest
11
village elites have accommodated themselves
to this aspect of the programme, recognising
that the costs are balanced against some
village-wide benefits, as initial uncertainty
about the programme tends to dissolve after
some time. A study of elite attitudes towards
the ultrapoor also suggests they are likely to
support interventions of this kind, to the
extent that they do not foster dependence, but
enable the ultrapoor to build their own
livelihoods through hard work (Chowdhury et
al. 2003).
One motivation for elite involvement
in the TUP programme derives from the
overlap between wealth, influence and the
requirements of local social and political
leadership. In the rural Bangladeshi moral
economy, leadership is defined by the willing-
ness to make provision for the poorest, parti-
cularly during crises (Greenough 1983).
Village elites involved in GSCs frequently
stress the continuities between those activities
and charitable acts they customarily perform
for the poorest. Given that village leadership
depends on the demonstrated capacity and
willingness of leaders to provide for the poor,
to the extent that GSCs provide a channel
through which they can fill that remit, they
are a welcome addition to the apparatus of
village leadership. The significance of helping
the poor as a defining feature of local leader-
ship is affirmed by the willingness of local
politicians to volunteer for GSC membership,
despite BRAC’s official preference for and
staff efforts to exclude them. This is mainly
on grounds that local politicians have little
time for additional voluntary activities, but
also due to the fear that these village com-
mittees may be reduced to party political
patronage, or become a source of corruption.
Process documentation research into
GSC formation reveals, however, that BRAC
staff cannot impose their preferences on the
community - as indeed is appropriate. In
addition, village elites characteristically dis-
play a high degree of overlap between wealth,
high social status, and local official and
informal leadership, such that it is more than
likely that those in a position to provide the
support services required by the GSC mem-
bership will also be involved in other com-
mittees activities. The GSC survey revealed
that 34 per cent of GSCs had members
currently holding local government office,
while in 53 per cent, members had at some
time held office (Matin 2004). Fully 82
percent of all GSCs had members who were
also involved in other local committees, such
as the mosque, market/bazaar or school
management committees. This suggests that
GSC membership fits within local notions of
appropriate behaviour for village social and
political leaders.
The value-added of establishing a
committee to undertake what are widely seen
as customary social welfare activities (even if
these are honoured more in the breach) is that
the GSC format institutionalises and gives a
structure to what already goes on, or is
supposed to go on. Some village elites feel
that the burden of assisting the poor falls
more heavily on themselves than on others;
this is particularly true where there is a high
proportion of village elites who are absentee
or part-time residents. The GSC enables a
more systematic and more transparent means
of pressurizing others among the village elite
to pay their share of support to the village
poor. It also makes it possible for GSC
members to claim resources from local
government, local committees, and from other
NGOs. With respect to the provision of
sanitation facilities, it seems clear that these
required collective, rather than individual
action. Simply institutionalising and
formalising actions required under local moral
economy norms appears to have had some
impact on the willingness of village elites to
act.
Elite support for the poorest
12
A final motivation for elite engage-
ment is that the programme presents no
obvious threat to elites. While the programme
itself tackles extreme poverty, it does not
obviously challenge the substance of rich-
poor relations, nor, indeed, of gender rela-
tions. That the rich do not suffer from the
programme is affirmed in the language used
and meaning assigned to the activities of the
GSC. BRAC field staff and GSC members
explain their activities in ways that link
closely into understandings of the traditional
and religious duties and customary practices
of support for the poorest incumbent upon the
village rich. The process of establishing GSCs
similarly appeals to the benevolence and
munificence of the ‘respected’ and ‘bountiful’
elite, while prejudices against the involve-
ment of women in public decision-making
and committee activities are similarly
honoured, to the detriment of both poor and
elite women’s involvement in GSC activities.
5
Local ownership
The second factor underlying the effective-
ness of GSCs appears to be the ways in which
they help foster a sense of local ownership of
the programme process and of the GSC itself.
The importance of GSCs being rooted within
and responsive to the local community – in
particular the poor - is highlighted by a num-
ber of interesting characteristics of successful/
active GSCs. For example, the more active
and/or more successful Committees are also
those that are more likely to have poor
women among their membership. The survey
found that 22 per cent of GSCs did not have
TUP members (despite BRAC head office
directives) and that only 10 per cent had
representatives from the Palli Samaj
(primarily because these are not present in all
locations). Those with Palli Samaj members
5
This aspect of GSC formation was revealed in process
documentation research by Mamun-ur-Rashid and Md.
Hasanur Rahman of RED.
were more successful at raising cash
resources, while those with TUP members
were more likely to extend their remit to
others among the poor. In addition, GSCs in
which the elite members have salaried or
other jobs which take them outside of the
village appear to be somewhat less effective
at raising resources, presumably a reflection
of their greater detachment from village life.
Similarly, although the analysis did not show
this to be significant, GSCs in which a high
proportion of members had previously held
local government office or sat on other local
committees appeared to be less successful at
mobilising resources for the GSC; this may be
because to do so competed with their other
resource-mobilising activities, or because they
are too busy to devote much time to the
Committee. On the other hand, however, the
degree of ‘eliteness’ of the membership of the
GSC does not necessarily detract from its
effectiveness, as those where higher education
was more common were also more likely to
expand their remit to other poor people within
the community.
On balance, the most effective Com-
mittees appear to be those in which the
benefits of powerful elite membership are
married with genuine responsiveness and
some kind of accountability to the poor. One
way of viewing this is to see the more effect-
tive GSCs as examples of successful coali-
tions linking the interests of the poor to those
of elites. As one long-term observer of
Bangladeshi rural politics observes:
The point for a pro-poor agenda ... is not
to displace elite, for they will always be
there and will always (except on occasion
in the short term) get the greater share of
benefits. Rather, the objective is to obtain
significant benefits for non-elite on a
continuing basis and to steer as much as
possible of that benefit stream to the poor
(Blair 2003).
Elite support for the poorest
13
Blair acknowledges the need for the
poor to ally tactically and as necessary with
the non-poor and elites on agendas with
potentially wide benefits, on the grounds that
if it is true that elites continue to dominate
rural affairs ‘it will be difficult – and in all
likelihood impossible – to cobble together a
constituency large and powerful enough to
realise the pro-poor agenda on any exclusive
basis’ (ibid. 13). The BRAC experiment with
GSCs could thus be seen as an example of an
intervention that creates social capital by
building pro-poor coalitions through the
agency of an external actor (Harriss 2001).
The BRAC factor
The third and final factor underlying BRAC’s
success in engaging village elite support
appears to be related to the prestige involved
with connections to BRAC. As the largest
NGO in the country, BRAC has an image and
status among rural people unrivalled by other
NGOs and possibly by other private sector
organisations. In addition to its microfinance
programmes, which reach more than 3.5
million borrowers, BRAC has schools, clinics
and related social services, as well as
marketing vital producer and consumer goods
such as seeds and fresh milk. That BRAC is a
large, well-networked, powerful organisation
is clear to rural people, including the village
elite. The GSC intervention thus connects
village elites to a large-scale development
programme which has to date brought
tangible benefits to at least some of the
community. While we do not as yet know
precisely how BRAC is viewed, it seems
likely that village elites view connections
with BRAC as an investment with potential
future pay-offs. There is evidently some
prestige to be derived from, as one GSC
member explained it, ‘helping BRAC to help
the poor’.
Elite support for the poorest
14
CONCLUSION
BRAC’s attempt to engage village elites in
support of the poorest evolved in response to
perceived threats to the programme’s success,
emanating from the extreme vulnerability of
programme participants themselves. The
modest success, to date, of the Gram
Shahayak Committee experiment highlights
gaps in our knowledge of how to work with
both elite groups. There are no templates for
such engagement, and BRAC’s TUP
programme has relied on responding to needs
as they emerge through a combination of
experiment, knowledge of local conditions,
and ongoing action-oriented research (some
of which this paper is based on).
The experience with the TUP pro-
gramme has also highlighted gaps in our
knowledge about the ultrapoor, whose char-
acteristically extreme vulnerability renders
standard antipoverty programme redundant.
In the TUP programme, one emergent con-
cern is that improved livelihoods for the
ultrapoor may come at the cost of increasing
dependence on patrons. To some extent this
may be the unavoidable consequence of the
intrinsic character of extreme poverty in rural
Bangladesh, which involves substantial exclu-
sion from patronage relationships. As the
ultrapoor move up into the ranks of the
merely poor, or better still, the non-poor, they
will necessarily rely on an increasingly wide
circle of social networks and relationship
which are vital to the sustainability of rural
livelihoods. Drawing on some parts of those
networks and relationships will inevitably
involve becoming more embedded in
patronage relationships. The dynamics of
dependency, autonomy and progress out of
ultrapoverty is an area which merits further
research.
BRAC’s experiment with engaging
village elites also raises questions about the
dominant wisdom with respect to the politics
of rural antipoverty programmes. While there
are concerns about the longer-term consequ-
ences of what has proven to be a necessary
engagement with village elite, in the short- to
medium-term, the pay-offs appear to have
been worth the effort. Through careful
coalition-building based on advocacy and a
good understanding of local social practices,
it appears to be possible to engage village
elites in support of the poorest.
Elite support for the poorest
15
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The determining condition for poor people is uncertainty. Some societies perform better than others in mitigating this uncertainty. In such societies we observe welfare regimes which reduce the uncertainties of the market to provide for all citizens minimum conditions for reproduction. Such societies are in a minority. Elsewhere, destructive uncertainty is more pervasive. Under these conditions, the poor have less control over relationships and events around them. They are obliged to live more in the present and to discount the future. Risk management in the present involves loyalty to institutions and organizations that presently work and deliver livelihoods, whatever the longer term cost. Strategic preparation for the future, in terms of personal investment and securing rights backed up by correlative duties, is continuously postponed for survival and security in the present––the Faustian bargain.
Chapter
In this chapter we further bridge the link between specific programmes that have worked for the poorest and how to finance such schemes. The chapter considers the lack of provision of financial services to the poorest, within a social protection context. More specifically, we highlight that microfinance requires further innovation to reach down to ever-poorer people while safety net programmes need to link-up with financial service providers to empower the destitute to seek better and more sustainable livelihood opportunities. Microfinance, providing opportunities from the top, and safety nets, providing support from below, create the framework for the poorest to chart their way out of poverty. While some vulnerable people will always require state assistance, deliberate and carefully linking of microfinance and safety nets services can offer a new hope for achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing poverty and graduating many of the poorest out of destitution. The graduation initiative of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest (CGAP) aims to develop new pathways of cooperation between social protection and microfinance experts. Too few people in microfinance truly comprehend its potential to open up opportunities for the poorest. Too few people in social protection realize how microfinance linkages can create tremendous potential for the destitute.
Book
Providing microcredit to the poor has become an important antipoverty scheme in many countries. Microcredit helps the poor become self-employed and thus generates income and reduces poverty. In Bangladesh, these programs reach about five million poor households. But microcredit programs are just one of many ways of reducing poverty. Are these programs cost-effective? This book addresses the question, drawing on the experiences of the well-known microcredit programs of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, the Rural Development-12 project, and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. It examines the cost-effectiveness of microcredit programs vis-a-vis other antipoverty programs, such as Food-for-Work. Does the gender of program participants matter? This book uses extensive household survey data to address how the gender of participants affects the impact of microcredit programs.
Article
The author questions the assumptions of an “Asian school of scarcity and risk,” of which James C. Scott is the principal exponent, using Bengali peasant history as a case in point. He argues that it is more likely that the subsistence traditions of Bengal derive from locally generated values of abundance and indulgence than from a universal “moral economy” and suggests that detailed accounts of subsistence traditions in other parts of Asia will confound attempts to prove that European experience is a reliable guide to Asian practices.
Article
The article argues that explanations of problematic governance are institutional rather than organizational and have their roots in the deep structures of society. Bangladesh is used as an exemplar for such analysis, deploying the notion of the institutional responsibility square comprising four institutional domains of state, market, community and household. A prior or ‘total institution’ metaphor is used to describe the ways in which different classes are obliged to pursue their livelihoods, entrapped within the problematic social embeddedness of these four institutional domains. The article develops this argument via three themes: permeability between these domains (i.e., blurred moral boundaries between public and private behaviour); problem of legitimation of public institutions, given this permeability; and the incorporated rather than independent characteristics of civil society, thus limiting optimism about its potential to create reform. Nevertheless the article offers a strategic agenda of institutional improvement (i.e., escape from the prison) based on the principles of shifting people's rights from the problematic, uncertain informal sphere towards the formal realm. Copyright © 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Article
This article examines a program that seeks to reach Bangladesh’s “hardcore poor” by combining elements of livelihood protection (food aid) with livelihood promotion (skills training and microfinance). Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee’s Income Generation for Vulnerable Group Development Program has deepened the outreach of its poverty-reduction activity and achieved impressive results. Detailed local-level fieldwork revealed, however, that program practice differed markedly from program plans. This is found to have important implications for both future program design and the understanding of “who” does not benefit from such innovative programs. We conclude that while such programs, mixing livelihood protection and promotion, should be a major focus for anti-poverty strategies there will remain a role for more traditional social welfare schemes.