Reducing extreme poverty through a graduation approach

By Colton Hubbard
March 11, 2021

At the end of 2020, Plan International closed a program in Vietnam that was using a graduation approach to move people out of extreme poverty. The program was implemented alongside two others, in Mexico and Bangladesh, under a three-country project led by Trickle Up and funded by MetLife. While the project had positive results, Plan learned a number of lessons along the way, and a set of recommendations have been created to help international development professionals get the best results when implementing a graduation approach.


What is a graduation approach?

Graduation (or graduated) programs, based on a model originated by BRAC, take a step-by-step approach to building greater economic prosperity and stability among extremely poor populations (living on less than a few dollars a day). These populations often can’t benefit from traditional economic development interventions because the same features that keep them in poverty — isolation, lack of access to services, social marginalization, a weak social safety net — also make it hard for them to participate effectively.

UNHCR describes the basic elements of a graduation approach like this:

  • Identify the most vulnerable households within a community.
  • Provide cash transfers for basic needs.
  • Help families plan their livelihoods and transfer their productive assets.
  • Develop their ability to save money.
  • Provide livelihood enhancement through technical and entrepreneurial training.
  • Mentor participants throughout the process in a way that develops their self-confidence.

As it continues to be used and integrated into more programs, evaluators are providing strong evidence — using experimental, quasi-experimental or other rigorous evaluation approaches — that the graduation approach can be a powerful tool in alleviating extreme poverty.


The program

Over three years, Plan reached 7,000 households in the Quang Tri and Kon Tum provinces, both located in the rural central highland regions of the country. Our activities targeted the very poor and ultra-poor (terminology designating the most impoverished groups), and provided trainings, coaching, financial and material support, connections to government services and support for the creation of social solidarity groups to build good financial practices and savings.

As a result of these activities, the program achieved some compelling results, according to a third-party program evaluation.  

  • 272 Village Savings and Loans (VSL) groups established and functioning.
  • 97% of ultra-poor participants passed at least six out of nine project-defined benchmarks for being considered out of extreme poverty, and almost 40% passed nine out of nine benchmarks.
  • 94% of ultra-poor households reported every member was eating at least one meal with meat/fish/eggs per week, and had at least two meals per day.
  • 97% of ultra-poor households had at least one youth member engaged in at least two livelihood activities.
  • 94% participants had knowledge of available government programs and services (social services, insurance).
  • 94% of household children (5-14) were in school.
  • 99% of household members had access to health care services.

Key learnings

Like almost every other activity in 2020, the program was disrupted by COVID-19. As periodic lockdowns introduced social distancing measures and unexpected expenses, it became harder for savings groups to keep in contact, and to keep saving. As a result, some of the groups lost cohesion, and 11 of them stopped functioning.

Beyond COVID-19, 2020 also saw incidences of extreme weather phenomena increase. Particularly in the last quarter of the year, a series of floods, storms and prolonged heavy rain affected many project sites. More than 800 program households suffered at least some form of damage to either homes, livestock, crops or other property.

The project responded by working with the local Women’s Union to deliver emergency relief, recovery help, cash assistance, supplemental training and home visits. Unfortunately, the prevalence of severe weather is likely to increase as the climate warms.



Over the course of the program, Plan tailored and adapted the approach to respond better to local context and arising needs. We hope other implementers can learn from our experience.

1. Apply wealth-ranking methods for recruitment to the program, and make the selection process as participatory and transparent as possible to avoid unintended social or economic consequences (i.e., do no harm).

2. Recruit local coaches from the communities who understand the situation, culture and language of participants for more effective daily interactions and support.

3. Use community-based groups (VSLs, parenting groups, girls club, etc.) as platforms for skills building beyond financial education, such as life skills, gender equity, decision-making, advocating and advancing the social engagement of girls and women.

4. Align with government partners and their initiatives and policies whenever possible, to leverage existing resources and programs, improve accessibility and gain their buy-in.

5. Include disaster-risk reduction activities such as training, communication and the creation of emergency response plans to help VSL and other groups be resilient in the face of disasters.



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