For more than 50 years, Opportunity has served people living on just a few dollars a day to empower them to create their own microbusinesses to support their families in the absence of job and income opportunities. Today, as “microfinance” has become a widespread and successful avenue for development, we are focusing our efforts on those living in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $2.15 a day. And, in some places, we are piloting programs for those living at the very lowest level of the economic pyramid—families surviving on less than $1.25 a day, in a situation known as ultra-poverty.
For those living in ultra-poverty, even the most basic needs and services remain out of reach. Most people living in ultra-poverty are rural women and children who grow up with little or no education. They spend most of their income on food, yet they still struggle with severe food insecurity. They search desperately for piecemeal work, and they live in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Worst of all, they fall through the cracks of most traditional poverty alleviation programs, leaving them without any form of safety net.
The Graduation Model, a methodology first developed by BRAC in 2002, was designed to meet the needs of families living in these incredibly severe conditions. As part of the program, families receive an asset—like livestock or startup products for a small shop—to help them build a source of income, as well as holistic training and coaching over time to help them build skills and confidence.
In 2015, a study published in Science found that the graduation approach "is cost-effective and leads to statistically significant and sustainable gains in economic and social outcomes for ultra-poor households across diverse contexts."
And Opportunity has seen these results, too. We work with Fonkoze’s graduation program in Haiti, one of the most successful examples where an astounding 99% of participants successfully started two businesses and improved their housing. These mothers are now feeding their families and sending their children to school.
Now, we have expanded this program to two different regions: the urban context of Cartagena, Colombia, and a rural village in Malawi. These programs are designed to help mothers living in the most extreme forms of poverty feed their families, find a steady income, send their children to school, provide safe shelter, save money to provide security for the future, improve their self-esteem, and be more connected to their communities.
Graduation Programs in Action
In the areas we have targeted in Colombia and Malawi, families are barely getting by every day. Few opportunities for work exist, leaving mothers to search desperately for anything they can do to support their children—from carrying water to washing someone else’s clothes. If they are lucky, they will make a dollar and feed their family that night. If not, their children will go to bed hungry again.
Participants are carefully chosen based on who is in desperate need. A case worker is assigned to each family and starts by tackling their first and most immediate need: food. By providing a food stipend for the first six months of the program, participants know they can feed their families and can thus shift their focus from survival to the trainings offered by Opportunity.
Participants form a savings group, where they begin to learn basic financial skills and start saving very small fragments of their earnings. Opportunity then helps each mother either become more employable through skills training or start her own business. We provide the materials needed to get businesses up and running, as well as the ongoing business management training to help them flourish in their new roles as entrepreneurs.
For two years, Opportunity walks with these women as they build their confidence, their businesses, and their futures. With support from partners around the world, we are helping families living in the most severe forms of poverty move from dependency to self-sufficiency.
If you’d like to support women going through the graduation program, please learn more about what your monthly support can do.