This morning, I received a touching letter from Munshi Sulaiman about his recent trip to Pakistan to see BRAC's Ultra Poor program there. Munshi has been working with BRAC for the last 8 years and currently coordinates BRAC's research activities outside Bangladesh.
His letter gives faces to the people of Pakistan who are never in the limelight, from our dedicated staff to the extremely poor people who live outside the realm of politics and terrorism. Like so many people living in poverty all over the world, their primary goal is survival. I'd like to share his letter with all of you:
I was pleasantly surprised to see the beauty of Islamabad, all the blocks of nice mansions, well-planned roads with loads of traffic, but no traffic jams, and greenery everywhere. Since this was my first time in Pakistan, and as someone who grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, it was hard to believe such a nice city existed in South Asia. However, a bigger surprise awaited me in Lasbela, a town in Baluchistan province neighboring one of the busiest mega-cities in the world, Karachi.
One of the purposes of my visit to Pakistan has been to get an exposure to BRAC's Targeting the Ultra Poor Program in Pakistan and to design a research study to evaluate its impact. The Ultra Poor program is BRAC's flagship initiative aimed at targeting those living in extreme poverty, struggling for survival below the food poverty line.
Recognizing the need for an initiative to target the extreme poor, BRAC launched the Ultra Poor program in Bangladesh in 2002. The program starts with asset transfers, but the main intervention is two years of continuous ongoing support. It has a time-bound approach of graduating its participants into sustainable livelihoods.
A three-round longitudinal study on these families finds that almost 70 percent manage to lift themselves out of extreme poverty a year after end of program support. Close to 80 percent manage to do so five years after the end of the program support. Since the study, BRAC's Ultra Poor program has been successfully replicated all around the world. However, I was skeptical whether such a program could be appropriate in the context of Pakistan. Until, of course, I was in the field meeting the people, the "real people."
Due to bad planning on my side, I was forced to go visit the program on a Sunday. When I arrived at their branch office in early morning, I apologized for taking away their Sunday, the staff's only day off. The response was, "Don't worry, we work in Ultra Poor, this is a 24/7 job." By the time I left at the end of the day, I was quite convinced this was literally the case.
The village I went to was about six km (3.7 miles) away from the town center of Hubchowki. The roads in Hubchowki are in very good shape. The village is very close to the markets, reinforcing my skepticism about the necessity of such a program in Pakistan. After a 10-minute drive, the car turned onto a small lane, and in 10 seconds I could see the village. These villages can barely be seen from the highway despite such close proximity. Working with the Ultra Poor program in Bangladesh has given me quite a bit of understanding of lives and livelihoods of the poor. However, this was something completely different.
There are about 50 households in that village, and 12 of them have been selected to participate in the Ultra Poor program. I wondered, "Why not all of them?" Their shabby shade-like houses tell a lot about their living conditions. They have been living on this land for over 20 years, and vulnerable to eviction at the will of the landlord. They live on irregular and unreliable sources of work as day laborers. The primary school building is a five-minute walk from the village, but probably has never seen a teacher. The people have no political affiliations, and pretty much no government or civil-sector safety nets reach them. The people I spoke with literally hate NGOs (non-governmental organizations), as they say "NGO-wala sare jhute hey" (NGO people are frauds). They see people from different development agencies coming to talk to them, but never see any tangible help.
Allani, a 47-year-old woman living in the village, is an Ultra Poor participant. Her husband has been sick for over a year, and they have four children. Her inconsistent income from day labor meant they she did not have money to take her husband to a health center. Sending the kids to school was out of question.
However, Allani was given a chance to change things when a BRAC staff person came and knocked on her door and invited her to participate in the Ultra Poor program. She soon received a cow and 10 chickens as asset-transfer through the initiative. She has also received a subsistence allowance. Her husband was taken to a health center, and was found to be suffering from tuberculosis. He is currently getting better with regular medication. She has started a small shop inside her house with the money she saved from the stipend and selling eggs.
I could see our staff was very proud of her success. Saifullah Mengle, the area manager for Ultra Poor, did his Masters in political science and joined the program about a year ago dreaming of a nice cozy office. I asked whether he feels he should be able to do less field work and more desk work. His response was, "you don't find the ultra poor in the office documents -- they are in the villages. I am happier to be in the village because I can make a change in someone's life."
The excitement that one can feel talking to them about the program is very hard to explain. Through my career at BRAC, I have interacted with staff across different geographies and programs. Even with the extreme level of commitment that BRAC staff generally exhibit, there was something extraordinary about the staff implementing the Ultra Poor program in Pakistan (Perhaps all microfinance credit officers should spend some time with this program to motivate and sensitize themselves.)
People often ask about the nature of the 'hand-holding' element of the program. Let me try to give one example of hand-holding that I came across in Hubchowki. About a week before the day of my visit, the area manager got a call in the middle of night from the husband of one of their Ultra Poor members, Amina. She was pregnant and was in critical condition, the birth attendant gave up hope. The area manager ran into the village at midnight, took her to the health center, collected blood from a blood-bank, and managed the necessary medicines. Talking to the family, it was quite clear that Saifullah was critical in saving two lives that night.
Emergencies are more of a norm than accidents for the ultra poor. The hand-holding is being able to ask someone for help. Does this create dependency? Well, we all depend on each-other. We believe that after graduating from the program, these participants can probably go to a health center on their own. The challenge is to elevate their lives to that point.
The day after Amina's child was born she told Saifullah, "This boy is a gift from Allah (God), who sent you as his firista (angel). You name him..." Saifullah named the child Abed, after BRAC's founder Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. It is a remarkable coincidence that Sir Fazle Hasan Abed was celebrating his 75th birthday the same week this child was born in rural Pakistan. Sir Abed could not have asked for a better birthday gift, after dedicating his life to build BRAC -- giving millions of women like Amina and her families a second chance in life.
Munshi is currently finishing up his doctoral work at the London School of Economics. He has played a critical role in evaluating BRAC's Ultra Poor program in Bangladesh.
MicroCapital.org recently published a review of a paper on the initial findings from a CGAP initiative to adapt BRAC's Ultra Poor program in countries all over the world. Click here to read the review.