Important development programmes such as microfinance often do not reach the very poorest households. A new set of initiatives, called Graduation programmes, have targeted these very poor households. Their objective is to graduate them out of poverty in a sustainable manner and make them resilient so they do not fall back into poverty.
Most of these programmes target women and use some form of asset transfer, and perhaps stipends for a fixed period. In addition to this material support they often help clients to strengthen their social network. Typically, programmes expect to work with clients for two years before they are ready to graduate.
In addition some programmes provide psychological support to these poor women who are often marginalised socially and often have very little confidence to engage even in petty business. But not all programmes include this component. The question is should they?
How important is psychological support such as life planning, confidence building and strengthening social awareness in helping poor women to graduate in a resilient way? Surprisingly, no research has actually addressed this question. It is a development frontier and we do not know for sure what the answer is.
This research is stage two of a project seeking to answer this question. In stage one, the research team adopted a well-known model of psychological wellbeing and tested it on a sample of women from a BRAC programme called 'Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction: Targeting the Ultra-Poor' (CFPR-TUP) There has been a lot of economic and social research on this programme and almost all the evidence shows that it is effective in bringing poor women and their households out of poverty and that is also efficient in terms of cost. However none of this research has really focused on the relative importance of the different inputs -material, social and psychological. In particular the psychological dimension has had no research. We do not know whether these softer inputs provided through informal counselling and through confidence building workshops make any difference.
The stage one research took advantage of a large data set that has been collected over four rounds since 2007 on economic and social dimensions of change in client households. It also generated a new set of client data giving them scores on the psychological model because there is not any existing data to work with. The researchers first of all used statistical routines to explore the psychological wellbeing model with this new data. It then compared psychological wellbeing scores with scores on income and other dimensions of material progress. It established that three key dimensions of psychological wellbeing are closely associated with material improvement. It also showed that, compared to a control group, members of the programme performed better in two out of three of these dimensions.
Stage two research will seek to validate these findings by testing them across a fresh sample taken from three different programmes seeking to reduce extreme poverty. The research will refine the existing questionnaire based upon methods used in social psychology. The questionnaire will be canvassed with 1,800 households across the three programmes, only one of which provides psychological support and for all of which matching socio-economic data is available.
After collecting this new data, the researchers will run a series of statistical tests focusing on whether the programme providing psychological inputs performs better or not. Together with the socio-economic data, this new data will help establish whether psychological support to poor clients is adding value by strengthening or speeding up progress out of poverty. The results will be shared with groups of the clients to provide some ground-truthing of the analytic findings. The results will then also be shared broadly within the national and international development community.
The primary beneficiaries will be the ultra-poor households for whom graduation programmes are designed. The objective is to try and improve design by assessing the inputs provided and the end result should be inputs being more appropriate than they might otherwise have been. This may be relatively easier to accomplish in BRAC itself but BRAC's donors, including DFID who are the major funders of the CFPR programme, have a strong funding and advocacy role on working with the extreme poor beyond Bangladesh.
Results from this research, if convincing to DFID, may be an important contribution to ultra poor programmes in Bangladesh where they support several initiatives beyond CFPR. DFID are also uniquely well-placed to bring interesting and policy relevant research results to the wider development community.
The international donor community are deeply concerned about results-based management and the cost effectiveness of aid both for their own efficiency as public bodies but also to defend aid budgets in hard times -working with ultra poor households in poor countries is one area where evidence-based improvement may be a substantial argument in support of retaining development funding.
Academic beneficiaries will include some of the most important figures in development impact evaluation who have engaged extensively with graduation programmes. There has been a clear recognition in the literature that research on psychological wellbeing is needed; there is a belief that it may well explain differences in programme performance.
Graduation programmes are likely to grow in number and size across the developing world and may well have a clearly defined role in the post-2015 agenda. If this research can establish the importance of psychological wellbeing inputs it has the potential to exert decisive influence on the design of poverty reduction interventions.