The Graduation Approach: What’s Next on the Research Agenda?

Earlier this year we published the results of an eight-year project to measure the impact of the Graduation Approach, an intervention aimed at moving people out of extreme poverty and into sustainable livelihoods. We surveyed over 20,000 people in 10,000 households in six countries before and after they participated in the CGAP-Ford Foundation Graduation programs, along with a control group. The results were strong.

Participating households showed more income, consumption, and assets (including savings) than control households, and better food security and mental health. The program had a positive return on investment in five of the six sites, in some cases dramatically so.

After years of effort and considerable investment by the Ford Foundation, CGAP, and others, it has been gratifying to see how much interest there has been in the findings and to see them put into action. As researchers we don’t always get to make a direct connection between our work and on-the-ground programs, but with scale-ups of Graduation launching in India, Ethiopia, and Pakistan, among other places, we can see a clear link between research and practice.

With the Graduation impact results sparking a lot of connections and conversations with governments and NGOs considering the Graduation Approach as part of their social protection strategies, we now have an opportunity to learn a bit about how potential implementers are looking at the evidence and what more they want to see. They are asking a lot of tough questions and having internal debates about the scalability of the Graduation model and how it (a) could be modified to make it easier or cheaper to implement; and (b) compares to other alternatives, including various existing social protection programs and cash transfers.

These questions align nicely with our own research agenda about how to help the poor move out of poverty (especially extreme poverty) through building livelihoods. In Ghana we are launching a new study to compare the Graduation Approach with and without coaching, alongside other interventions hopefully including lump sums of cash (like GiveDirectly) and cognitive behavioral therapy to improve mental health. We are also working with Heifer International to evaluate their livestock-based approach, which has much in common with the Graduation Approach.

Ultimately we hope to be able to offer governments and other implementers a menu of options with program costs and associated impacts for different target populations. The original Graduation studies were done with the able-bodied rural poor, which raises questions about how such programs might extend to the disabled or the urban poor. Like the evaluations of the original CGAP-Ford Foundation Graduation programs, it will take a considerable investment of time, resources, and partners ready to put their programs to the test. We think it will again be worth it. 

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