Jane Carter, Gender & Social Equity Coordinator, HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation
Focusing on extremely poor people
What is particularly interesting about Shiree is its explicit aim to work with the very poorest and marginalised members of society. Designed in 2006, it pre-dates the international recognition of this need, as encapsulated in the SDGs. Shiree focussed on working with people who experience multiple, intersecting disadvantage – members of minority groups such as Adivasis and "low" caste Hindus; women-headed households; disabled individuals.
"Graduation" from extreme poverty
Shiree was a results based programme, having the (revised) goal to support 1 million extremely poor people to "graduate" out of poverty. In this it more than succeeded, the final figures being in the order of 1.14 million people. Field implementation was conducted by a range of local partners, selected through a system of competitive tendering; there were a total of 45 over the programme lifetime. "Graduation" from extreme poverty was measured according to an index with multiple parameters. These included food coping strategies; cash; income diversification; savings; productive assets; food consumption diversity; health and nutrition status of household head; gender empowerment; access to safe drinking water and sanitation; and access to cultivable land. A household was deemed "graduated" if it met a set number of characteristics, which differed according to rural and urban settings. All partners had to report on this basis; thus there is clear evidence to show that graduation occurred. What is less clear is whether those who "graduated" have gained resilience to withstand any setbacks that they might encounter in future. It is possible that the strong focus on graduation led to insufficient attention to building resilience – but to fully test this hypothesis, a longer period of monitoring would be needed.
The psychological value of personal visits
The main way in which the EEP sought graduation out of poverty was through asset transfer, backed by appropriate training. Field facilitators were expected to discuss the interests and capacities of each household member before agreeing a particular livelihood improvement strategy that would work for them. These facilitators also followed up regularly to check on progress – using a mobile-based monitoring system with GPS positioning. Although this suffered certain technical difficulties, in addition to allowing data entry in the field, it tracked facilitator movements – effectively adding a further layer of monitoring. There is thus proof that visits took place. It is well possible that this personal follow-up was one of the keys to programme success. This is the comment of the EEP/Shiree Executive Director, Eamoinn Taylor.
"If you have been treated as worthless all your life, if you regard yourself as at the bottom of the heap, and then along comes someone you regard as a social superior, who shows a genuine interest in wanting to help you, who suggests ways of improving your circumstances, and who comes back regularly to support you – that is a huge motivational driver for self-belief that tomorrow can be better than today."
Kulsumata from Sunamganj provides a glowing example. It so happens that the Shiree project in her area was run by Helvetas. Married at the age of 14, Kulsumata experienced violence at the hands of her husband and in-laws, and was finally thrown out of the family home with her small son when her husband took another wife. "One day I met with some Helvetas staff, who talked with me about my situation and said that I would be eligible for the Shiree programme. After a while, my name was verified, and I received 7,500 Taka [approx. $ 94] with which I leased a 50 decimal plot of paddy land. On this I cultivated fast ripening paddy in the season before the monsoon. I received support in the cultivation – in seeds, materials and advice – but the labour was my own, and I took the lease myself. I sold the paddy at the end, whilst keeping some for us to eat; I used part of the money to buy a sewing machine….so now I do tailoring to earn money during the off-season. In the second year I leased 75 decimals of land and cultivated paddy again – again it was successful. So now I am raising ducks and poultry, as well as doing tailoring and cultivating paddy. Furthermore, I got a job as an insurance representative – and I'm working in a BRAC kindergarten as a teacher for under 5s…My son is now 5½ years old, and going to school, and my husband and in-laws are asking me to go back to them."
Step by step, Kulsumata has worked her way to financial independence and self-confidence. That she is exceptionally successful is clear; she was selected as a "star performer" of Shiree to visit Dhaka along with the three other women pictured above. Nevertheless, over a million extremely poor people have shown that given a few assets, training, and personal mentoring, they could significantly change their lives for the better.