Programmes for the poorest of the poor

The present generation may become the first to witness a world without extreme poverty. The international community has set itself that ambitious goal in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Unfortunately, numerous studies indicate that conditions will have to be very favourable for poverty eradication to succeed.

last contributed to D+C/E+Z in spring 2017 as a policy advisor working on the GIZ sector project “Eradicating poverty – reducing inequality”.

Extreme poor people like here in Burundi often have to walk many kilometres to fetch drinking water. This is work for women and children. Koene/Lineair Extreme poor people like here in Burundi often have to walk many kilometres to fetch drinking water. This is work for women and children.

Growing inequality, increasingly fragile statehood and the impacts of climate change all present obstacles to eradicating poverty. Moreover, it looks as though neither India nor sub-Saharan Africa can tackle poverty as effectively as China did in the era of the Millennium Development Goals. South of the Sahara, in particular, poverty reduction is expected to slow down significantly.

The region accounts for by far the largest share of the world’s ultra-poor, defined as people with an income that is more than 50 % below the international poverty line. The World Bank sees the severity of poverty as one of the three greatest challenges in realising the first of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 1): to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. Its conclusion is that political discourse must focus more intensely on the needs of the poorest of the poor (World Bank, 2015).

The only major study on ultra-poverty (IFPRI, 2007) showed that the people affected tend to:  

  • live in remote rural areas,
  • belong to ethnic minorities,
  • have low levels of education,
  • own only very few assets and
  • lack sufficient access to markets.

Women, children and people with disabilities are much more likely to be ultra-poor than other people. However, definitive statements are not possible as they would have to be based on data that distinguishes between household members. At present, however, poverty figures are mostly compiled in surveys of households, not persons.

According to the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network (CPAN, 2014), there are three core complex causes of ultra-poverty:

  • meagre assets and poor returns from them,
  • a very unequal distribution of power that excludes the ultra-poor and
  • a general political environment including social norms as well as macroeconomic policy that may work against the interests of the poorest people.

Negative events such as an illness within the family, violent conflict or natural disasters can trigger or aggravate ultra-poverty.

Supporting the poorest

To sustainably overcome ultra-poverty, efforts must be made to reduce it and to proactively prevent people from relapsing into it. Above all, policies are needed to promote the rights of the very poor, develop their skills and help to reduce inequalities. Action is particularly needed in the following areas:

  • Sustainable economic development: Growth strategies need to be inclusive, so poor people will contribute to economic growth and profit from it. In many countries with high levels of ultra-poverty, rural and agricultural development must be prioritised, with a special focus on smallholder farms. Vocational training can open up better opportunities for those who work in the informal sector. It may also facilitate the transition to formal employment.  
  • Education and health: The very poor, including children and women, need access to education and health care of a reasonable standard. Tools for improving matters include solidarity funds, voucher systems and scholarships. Cultural specifics of ethnic or religious minorities must be considered. Modern information and communication technology can serve to reach out to remote areas.
  • Social security: Universal social protection systems are needed. Basic safety nets and health insurance matter in particular. They must developed gradually and be expanded to reach the ultra-poor. Basic protection combined with proactive measures can sustainably help to lift people out of poverty.
  • Inclusion: Where the poorest in society are discriminated against on the grounds of ethnic identity or other characteristics, action needs to be taken to overturn discriminatory social norms. Programmes that empower women to participate more meaningfully in social and public life are also required.

In countries where large sections of the people are ultra-poor, efforts should focus particularly on disproportionately affected groups such as minorities, people with disabilities and people in remote rural areas or informal settlements. In other countries, it may be more expedient specifically to target ultra-poor households.

One of the most successful programmes directly aimed at reducing ultra-poverty is “Targeting the Ultra Poor”. It is also known as the graduation programme. It was created by BRAC, an international non-governmental organisation based in Bangladesh. It combines basic social protection with proactive measures such as skills training and the transfer of productive assets. An important element is that the families who participate are coached regularly. The challenges they currently face and training content are discussed in detail.

With the support of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), a global partnership based at the World Bank, the BRAC programme has been introduced in nine other countries. Evaluations have shown that, one year after the programme’s end, most participating households remain out of ultra-poverty (Banerjee et al., 2015). In Bangladesh, where the programme has been running far longer than elsewhere, the positive impacts are still evident years later.

More than 40 governmental and non-governmental actors are currently running versions of the BRAC programme tailored to local conditions. The practical outcomes will show how the programme can be scaled up effectively and cost-efficiently, and how it can fit into existing national social protection systems.

Taking account of circumstances

It is generally very hard to reach the ultra-poor. The reasons are their marginalisation, poor education and lack of resources. Even informal waste collectors, for example, require a certain level of organisation to benefit from development schemes. However, agencies like BRAC have proved that it is possible to help the ultra-poor to escape poverty in the long run. To do so, one must take account of their specific circumstances. As a general rule, for instance, the ultra-poor cannot afford to make financial contributions or pay fees or charges. Nor do many have the time or education needed to participate in regular training. Another increasingly important question is how official development assistance (ODA) and national policies can reach the ultra-poor.

At the same time, national and international structures need to be reformed in a way that reduces inequality instead of compounding the problem. Unless that happens, eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 is likely to remain a pipe dream.  

Jörn Geisselmann is a policy advisor working on the GIZ sector project “Eradicating poverty – reducing inequality”. In this essay he is sharing his personal views.


Banerjee, A., et al., 2015: A multifaceted program causes lasting progress for the very poor. Evidence from six countries.

Chandy, L., Ledlie, N., and Penciakova, V., 2013: The final countdown. Prospects for ending extreme poverty by 2030.

CPAN, 2014: The Chronic Poverty Report 2014-2015: The road to zero extreme poverty.

IFPRI, 2007: The world’s most deprived

World Bank Global Monitoring Report 2014/2015: Ending poverty and sharing prosperity.

Related Articles