Is ‘Graduation’ Possible in Emergencies?

This post was authored by Alexandra Klass of USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA).

We know the power of the Graduation Approach and its impressive results that lift the ultra-poor out of poverty, but can it also be successful for people living in humanitarian crises and displacement?

Traditional humanitarian aid meets households’ basic needs: a place to live, food, medical care, safe drinking water — but on average, people displaced by crises like wars and droughts are unlikely to return home quickly. People have to earn a living in difficult environments, sometimes even for a decade or longer. But helping crisis-affected or displaced people with many vulnerabilities enter a new market, where they may not have assets or connections, can take multiple years — well beyond the traditional duration of humanitarian assistance. How can humanitarian organizations help people meet their own needs over the medium term when traditional humanitarian projects are one year or less?

The Graduation Approach, introduced by the non-governmental organization BRAC in 2002, addresses the multifaceted needs of the ultra-poor by providing comprehensive, sequenced support across four pillars, below.

  • Livelihood support, such as cash grants to start a business, livestock, or seeds and tools;
  • Cash, vouchers or in-kind items provided to support people’s basic needs;
  • Savings and financial services; and
  • Social empowerment to integrate into their communities, improve well-being, and strengthen economic inclusion.

The comprehensive and participatory design of the Graduation Approach is key to supporting refugees (and others affected by displacement) on their trajectory out of poverty, building their resilience against shocks and in time leading to independence from aid, especially as the amount of humanitarian funding continues to pale in comparison to the growing global need,” says Shoshana Hecker, Trickle Up’s Senior Director of Refugee Affairs.

USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, in its commitment to supporting displaced and crisis-affected people, has learned three key takeaways about applying the Graduation Approach in humanitarian settings:

  1. Graduation programs targeted to settled refugee populations can be similar to those reaching ultra-poor citizens, but should take different groups’ needs and barriers into consideration.

BHA’s Resilience Food Security Activities (RFSAs) use multi-layered, multi-sector approaches, including the Graduation Approach, to strengthen livelihoods and build households’ resilience, reduce malnutrition, improve food security, and minimize risks. The BHA-funded Graduating to Resilience Project in Western Uganda, led by AVSI, aims to improve food security and nutrition by helping smallholder farmers shift towards market-oriented and climate-resilient agricultural livelihoods. Notably, the project includes both Ugandan host community members and refugees. Assessment work conducted in partnership with AIR and Trickle Up, sub-partners under Graduating to Resilience, demonstrated that hosts and refugees have similar livelihood opportunities, but refugees face higher costs and lesser access to assets. A three-arm randomized control trial tested the approaches, showing that, after receiving a similar package of support including an asset transfer of $300, there was an increase in the value of refugee and host populations’ assets, income, consumption, food security, and subjective well-being. Critically, Ugandan law allows refugees the right to work — a factor that must be considered when designing graduation programs for refugees.

  1. Rigorous evaluation shows that the Graduation Approach can improve people’s livelihoods and incomes even when they face displacement and conflict.

We know economic activity continues in crisis and conflict, but the rules, norms, and supporting institutions will change — making it harder for the most vulnerable to build a livelihood. But we also know that the poorest of the poor are the least likely to have the resources to move in a crisis. Thus they may remain in communities of origin amidst wider displacement — making their access to sustainable livelihoods even more important.

Evaluations of graduation approach programs in two of the world’s most challenging humanitarian crises — Yemen and Afghanistan — broadly surfaced how the approach can generate impressive gains in wellbeing across consumption, indebtedness, and labor force participation. In Yemen, researchers from Northwestern University and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) looked at a graduation program targeting beneficiaries of a national social safety net program managed by Yemen’s Social Welfare Fund and Social Fund for Development. The study found modest positive results four years on despite significant limitations due to the conflict. Results broadly indicated that in spite of years of brutal conflict, beneficiaries of the program had higher levels of assets and savings than non-beneficiaries.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, the evaluation of a graduation program found “large and significant impacts,” such as a 30 percent increase in per capita consumption a year after the project closed. The evidence base for graduation in complex humanitarian crises is still emerging, but what we do know tells us that humanitarian and development practitioners should not shy away from using appropriately designed graduation approaches on the basis of conflict, displacement, or instability alone.

  1. The humanitarian sector is starting to tease out adaptations of graduation pillars or delivery models required to tailor the approach to shorter timeframes or more mobile populations in crisis settings.

A forthcoming multi-country paper authored by L.N. Vann and World Vision will highlight key adaptations to the graduation approach in a drought and conflict-affected context. A BHA-funded project in Somalia included in the research aims to reach 5,000 people, mainly women. Adaptations the project made to drought and displacement included leveraging existing humanitarian food support beneficiaries received such that the project budget topped up existing assistance. Participants also had to have lived in project location for at least a month — a unique selection criteria to a humanitarian setting seeing regular new arrivals.

The Uganda Graduating to Resilience project tested group versus individual coaching models with both Ugandan citizens and refugees to see which approaches worked better, and were the most cost-effective. Both group and individual coaching were effective, suggesting that group coaching could be adopted as a resource-saving adaptation that allows tight project budgets to reach more people.

Looking to more typical short-term humanitarian programs, they often provide one or more of the graduation pillars on a shorter time span — particularly livelihoods (Pillar One) and food assistance (Pillar Two). In this way, integrated humanitarian interventions can form a “graduation lite” approach, but on a shorter timeframe than the traditional Graduation Approach.

We know researchers and implementers beyond those referenced here work to build the evidence base and answer tough questions about how we can help people living in humanitarian crises meet their own needs. BHA will continue to learn from emerging research and hopes to hear from you on what you’re learning.