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Why Extreme Poverty isn’t Extreme Enough

November 5, 2013

DSC01942Lant Pritchett, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, recently criticized the United Nations and World Bank goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 for being “too extreme.” Of course, Dr. Pritchett doesn’t oppose eradicating poverty, but rather dislikes the focus on ending extreme poverty because it excludes the poor living on more than a $1.25 per day. As he correctly notes, there is nothing magical about this $1.25 figure, and surely the five billion people who live under $10 per day also deserve the world’s attention. While I agree that there is nothing magical about the $1.25 per day line, I see value in focusing on the poorest of the very poor. And, taking things one step further, there is a particularly vulnerable subgroup within this population that warrants more attention.

What’s more extreme than extreme poverty?

There is a subset of people living in extreme poverty who face social barriers in addition to their econo

mic poverty. These social barriers result in their systematic exclusion and neglect from government services, market opportunities, and foreign assistance. Common causes for this exclusion include gender, ethnicity, social status, and disability, all traits associated with poverty and lack of political voice. Trickle Up refers to this condition as “ultrapoverty”.

Certainly, the international community should focus more explicitly on this intersection of poverty and marginalization rather than an arbitrary dollar-per-day figure. In addition to the systematic opportunity loss described above, the combination of economic need and social barriers creates a challenge that proves resistant to assistance designed for people that face only economic or social barriers. The nature of ultrapoverty carries with it significant implications for program design.

Still, the goal of eradicating extreme poverty is likely better for people living in ultrapoverty than a less “extreme” goal for several reasons. First, the reality that a dollar-per-day metric isn’t a reliable indicator for quality of life doesn’t mean it has no value as an indicator of economic poverty. NGO and government programs often fail to engage the poorest and assist instead those who are less poor. Without proactive targeting, poorer populations will remain underserved. Second, a growing number of NGOs and microfinance institutions have realized that many of their traditional programs are not capable of meeting the needs of the poorest. The goal of eradicating extreme poverty at least prompts the international community to take seriously the targeting and design of programs for the poorest and most marginalized.

Finally, the reality that the dollar-per-day metric isn’t a reliable indicator for quality of life doesn’t mean it has no value as a proxy for social barriers and constraints. Vulnerable populations, such as some scheduled castes in India and people with disabilities everywhere, are overrepresented amongst the poor, and there is some evidence that the deeper the economic poverty, the greater the overrepresentation.[1] Further, evidence and experience suggests that not only are such groups overrepresented amongst the poor, but also left behind by the non-profit and public sectors.  The experience of indigenous women in Latin America and people with disabilities everywhere speaks to this exclusion.

Failing to Reach the Poorest and most Vulnerable

  • In India, barely half of the poorest households had the Below Poverty Line card needed for government services, while 18% of the richest quintile had one.
  • A study in Bangladesh revealed NGO programs primarily provided services to moderately poor households, and failed to serve nearly 75 percent of the poorest people in their communities.
  • AusAID estimates development programs reach a mere 3 to 4% of people living with disability. People with disabilities make up 15-20% of the poor.
  • A World Bank study found significant variation in quality of targeting for poverty alleviation programs. 25% of poverty alleviation programs provided even fewer benefits to the poor than the non-poor.
  • The same World Bank study also notes the lack of peer-reviewed studies on down reach: research often fails to even consider whether benefits reach the poorest and most vulnerable, instead treating the poor as a homogeneous group.

This makes sense. People living in ultrapoverty typically live in more remote rural areas and may lack the time, self-confidence, risk tolerance, or trust to show up for community meetings and engage visiting NGO or government workers. In the numbers game of global development, higher per-person costs and specialized interventions are bad business.  Taken all together, the evidence and experience at hand suggests that people identified as living on less than a $1.25 per day are more likely to face significant social barriers and to be underserved by development programs.  If you want to help the most marginalized and excluded, identifying the poorest is a good way to start.[2]

In a perfect world, I, like Dr. Pritchett, would prefer a goal less focused on the dollar-per-day figure, and more focused on the populations that are traditionally marginalized and excluded.  My primary concern is that people living in ultrapoverty not again be left off the agenda. Sadly, we have little reason to believe development programs will make the extra effort without some impetus.

In summary, yes the $1.25 target is arbitrary and an imperfect proxy for economic need and social barriers. Still the eradication of extreme poverty requires the international community to engage populations it has often neglected. If we are to follow Dr. Pritchett’s lead and instead shift our attention upward to higher living standards, I fear that once again the poorest and most vulnerable will be left behind.

[1] I would note that this subject would benefit from greater academic attention. Trickle Up is actually in the midst of a consultation process in the areas where we work to better understand the relationship of poverty and social constraints and we look forward to sharing our findings.

[2] Of course, it is not perfect.  Measuring the economic poverty of people with disabilities, for example, can be difficult and contentious.

Remembering Peter Workman

April 10, 2013


Trickle Up lost a good friend this week.  Peter Workman, a generous donor since 2004, died of brain cancer at the age of 74.

We often tell the stories of Trickle Up participants but rarely share the stories of those who make our work possible.  So I want to take a moment to tell you about Peter, whom I first met in 2001 when his company published my wife’s book about philanthropy, “Rambam’s Ladder.”  When I joined Trickle Up, I was delighted to see that Peter had become a supporter via an introduction from our board member Alan Patricof.

Peter was an entrepreneur who founded the highly successful Workman Publishing Co.  Chances are that you may have read at least one of their books, such as “What To Expect When You are Expecting,” “Brain Quest,” a Sandra Boynton children’s book, “Water for Elephants” or one of their dozens or calendars or cookbooks.  It was always a treat to visit Peter at his office, both for the genuine interest he took in Trickle Up and his invitation to take as many books as I’d like.

Peter also was a man who cared deeply about justice and expanding opportunity for those who weren’t born into it.  Among the causes he supported were Goddard-Riverside Community Center, Prep for Prep, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU.  The cause that was closest to his heart was David Workman Grant Program at his alma mater Deerfield Academy.  In memory of his younger brother, Peter established the program to help students fund and implement their own humanitarian projects.

In October 2007, Peter invited me to come with him to Deerfield to meet with the students, talk about Trickle Up and perhaps inspire one or more to make service an important part of their lives.  It was a three-hour drive each way.  Peter sometimes came off as a bit of absent-minded professor, and I was a bit nervous about spending that much time with someone who had been only a casual acquaintance.  The ride turned out to be a most memorable day, which he extended towards the end of the trip as we approached City Island.  Unexpectedly, he pulled toward the exit lane and asked, “Want to stop for a lobster and a beer?” Even after hearing my presentation to his students and a lot of conversation during the ride to and from Deerfield, he spent most of our meal asking about Trickle Up and talking about public service.

You can read about Peter’s life at:

Trickle Up is fortunate to have people like Peter join us in our work.

When a Single Path Diverges

April 8, 2013

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“We’ve started using the river’s water for agriculture. The river has been there forever but we didn’t use it for our fields. Our Field Worker didn’t give us the river, but he did give us the knowledge to use it for cultivation.”

Saro Mandi

For women like Saro Mandi, who lives in Purulia District of West Bengal in India, change comes in small but meaningful increments. Her tiny plot of land once provided paddy for the family for 3 months; now with better irrigation she also grows a vegetable crop to sell for cash. A cash crop means she can invest in livestock to grow her asset base and save weekly. Weekly savings meetings bring her together with friends from her Self-Help Group–Cholagora Licher Sarna–ultrapoor women like Saro who are now making big changes in their community.

Incremental and meaningful change is the key to success in Trickle Up’s program. However, not everyone is successful, and variation in performance occurs both at the individual level and between self-help groups.  Understanding the reasons for variations in performance is critical to improving program design and implementation.

While individual circumstance and luck play a role, the quality of livelihood planning processes, relationships with field workers, and group dynamics all appear to be at least as important. A combination of factors are required to foster the virtuous cycles necessary for people in ultra-poverty to confront the multiple barriers they face in building sustainable livelihoods. These barriers include limited financial and productive assets along with weak social capital and limited technical skills. They also include the social and psychological legacy of livelihood strategies that are largely oriented to meeting survival needs, resulting in a low capacity to absorb risk and envisage a viable trajectory out of poverty.

When virtuous cycles are triggered participants, their fellow group members, and field workers are rewarded, building motivation and fostering close, supportive relationships and more positive outcomes. However, the opposite can also occur, and a lack of initial success can undermine motivation and de-incentivize engagement, particularly if livelihood planning processes fail to result in a full sense of ownership over activities.

“When a Single Path Diverges: Learning from Trickle Up’s Livelihood Program,”  by Jo Sanson and Jui Gupta and published by ACCESS Development Services for the Sitaram Rao Livelihoods India Case Study Compendium 2012, explores lessons from Trickle Up’s experience in Purulia through the experiences of two different groups of women: one that performed well and one that performed poorly.

Read the full case study: When a Single Path Diverges: Learning from Trickle Up’s Livelihood Program

From the CGAP Blog: Impact Research and the Role of Coaching In Poverty Reduction

February 22, 2013
“We’ve started using the river’s water for agriculture. Although the river has been there forever, we didn’t use it for our fields. Our Field Worker didn’t give us the river, but he did give us the knowledge to use it for cultivation.” Saro Mandi, India

Women receive weekly coaching support from Field Workers who help them think to the future, find new strategies for earning money and facilitate their progress out of poverty. Read this CGAP – Consultative Group to Assist the Poor blogpost by Janet Heisey for how we’re learning more about effective coaching.

Read more at:

A Discussion on Why Coaching Matters for the Ultrapoor

December 13, 2012


On November 29th, 2012, Trickle Up hosted Coaching Matters: Unleashing Human Potential, a panel to help bring about new understanding of Trickle Up participants’ journeys out of ultrapoverty – with the help of their coaches.

The panelists included:

  • John Starks, New York Knicks Guard, 1990-1998
  • Reshmi Paul, Ph.D., Executive Coach & Leadership Consultant, ghSMART
  • Janet Heisey, Director, Technical & Strategic Alliances, Trickle Up
  • Bill Abrams, President, Trickle Up (Moderator)
From left to right: Trickle Up Development Officer Shira Beery, Knicks Legend John Starks, Trickle Up President Bill Abrams

From left to right: Trickle Up Development Officer Shira Beery, Knicks Legend John Starks, Trickle Up President Bill Abrams

As Knicks great John Starks said, “Coaches are vital… you may not be putting the coaching label on it, but every day we are coached by people around us.” He would not have made it in the NBA if mentors like his brother or Pat Riley hadn’t seen something in him that he didn’t recognize in himself, and that’s exactly why coaching is essential to Trickle Up’s work with ultrapoor women around the world. But coaching is a tough gig, and Reshmi Paul’s advice to Trickle Up is to “create a mechanism of training the trainers so you don’t lose knowledge” and to enable scalability. Both Reshmi and John said that, if a coach is working too hard, he’s not doing his job well; the mark of a great coach is someone who empowers others to “police themselves.”

When we first announced this panel, we got a few puzzled responses asking about the relevance of the New York Knicks or Fortune 500 CEOs to Trickle Up’s work helping women start on a pathway out of poverty. John and Reshmi, in conversation with our own Janet Heisey, found the common denominators.  One was the necessity for coaches to be persistent and patient. That reminded me of a Trickle Up participant in India who told us: “When dada [affectionate nickname for field worker] first approached, we were so shy that we would cover our heads and hide. But he was relentless and told us not to be afraid. Finally we gave in.”

Today, December 3rd, is the International Day of People with Disabilities

December 3, 2012 the 3rd of December every year, the International Day of People with Disabilities is celebrated worldwide.

According to the United Nations, over one billion people, or approximately 15% of the world’s population, live with some form of a disability.

Known as “the world’s largest minority”, people with disabilities often face a variety of barriers, from social exclusion in their communities to an inability to access economic opportunities. Not surprisingly, people with disabilities account for 20% of the population living in extreme poverty.

This is why this year’s theme for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities is “removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all”. Evidence shows that when barriers to their inclusion are removed and persons with disabilities are empowered to participate fully in everyday life, their entire community benefits. Barriers faced by persons with disabilities are, therefore, a detriment to society as a whole, and accessibility is necessary to achieve progress and development for all.

Trickle Up is proud of its commitment to include people with disabilities in our work. Most recently in October 2010, supported by USAID, we launched the Microenterprise Opportunities for People with Disabilities project in Guatemala to support and enable 320 people with disabilities to develop livelihood activities, learn how to best manage those activities and begin saving regularly. To this date, our project works to remove barriers that inhibit our participants from reaching their fullest potential. Prior to this in 2009, Trickle Up began the Stronger Voices, Sustainable Livelihoods project to support people with disabilities in Mali and won InterAction’s first Disability Inclusion Award. In 2011, 14%of Trickle Up participants are affected by disabilities. Learn more…

blog digest magdalenaMagdalena Tambriz Cuc de Xolcaja is one of the 320 members in Guatemala that Trickle Up has helped to develop a sustainable livelihood, save money, learn new business skills and gain new-found confidence for their future.  For most of her 30 years, Magdalena was completely dependent on her family. As one of six children, she was kept indoors by her parents, who wanted to protect her from the stigma that goes with having a disability in her community. When Trickle Up began recruiting people with disabilities in her community to join our project, she was keen to seize the opportunity. In an interview with Trickle Up’s President Bill Abrams, Magdalena explained how her Trickle Up grant gave her the capital she needed to buy her materials for her weaving business. One day, she hopes to pursue her dream of starting a food cart business. Read her full story here…

Join us today, December 3rd, as we recognize the incredible achievements of Magdalena and other people with disabilities around the world! 

Today, October 17th, is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

October 17, 2012

This is a day when we at Trickle Up take time to reflect, recognize and celebrate the economic and social achievements of women and men past, present and future.

Featured Blogpost: French Fries Or Weaving: Choosing The “Right” Business

When I met Magdalena Tambriz Cuc de Xolcaja, she was sitting on the dirt floor of her home with a backstrap loom and a tableau of brilliant blue embroidery. Even in a country renowned for the skills of its weavers, Magdalena’s craftsmanship is a stand out.

So why does she really want to cook fried potatoes for a living?

Read more…

(This blog is part of a series in recognition of the UN’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Oct. 17)


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