Graduation – how to do it responsibly

Published on 24 May 2016

Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

Keetie Roelen

Research Fellow / Co-Director, Centre for Social Protection

Rachel Sabates-Wheeler

Rural Futures Cluster Lead

Graduation programmes have enjoyed a surge in policy and academic attention in the past few years, yet despite some evidence of success in terms of ‘graduating’ individuals out of extreme poverty, not all the attention has been positive.

Questions have been raised about the sustainability of graduation and the cost of implementing graduation programmes, especially if they scale up from pilot projects to national programmes, and whether governments – unlike grassroots NGOs – have the human resources needed to deliver the intensive support that is considered critical to graduation success stories.

Challenges have also been raised at an ideological level, with critics arguing that graduation as a concept is antithetical to the drive towards rights-based social protection and a minimum ‘social protection floor’ for all, which has been endorsed not only by rights-based agencies like the ILO and UNICEF, but even by market-oriented agencies like the World Bank (see the joint statement by the ILO and World Bank in June 2015). Graduation implies withdrawing support – a ‘one-way door’ out of the programme – whereas social protection should be in place for anyone who needs it at all times.

So are graduation programmes just another manoeuvre by governments and donors who favour narrowly targeted time-bound programmes, and who are always looking for exit strategies so as to minimise their spending on the poor?

We at the Centre for Social Protection support graduation programmes, but we also believe in rights-based approaches, specifically, of course, the right to social protection. This apparent ambivalence explains the question mark in our IDS Bulletin title: ‘Graduating from Social Protection’? Can we reconcile these apparently contradictory stances?

’Responsible graduation’

Yes, we can. The solution lies in ‘responsible graduation’, which means implementing graduation in such a way that the livelihoods are strengthened and supported while ensuring the right to social protection is not violated.

Our response to graduation critics is that the challenges to graduation programmes stem primarily from linear and short-term understandings of social change, feeding into inadequate funding, short policy cycles and donor timeframes and lack of appropriate monitoring and evaluation. In combination these coalesce so that too often recipients are being removed from programmes in ‘irresponsible’ ways, in the sense that there is limited or no consideration of their human welfare and future wellbeing. Graduation implemented in irresponsible ways will be antithetical to a rights-based approach, yet it does not have to be.

Principles for ‘responsible graduation’

We advocate the following principles for how to ‘graduate’ programme participants ‘responsibly’ rather than ‘irresponsibly’.

  1. A ‘revolving door’, not a ‘one-way door’: Most graduation programmes register participants only once, and after the cycle is complete they leave the programme permanently. Similarly, other programmes including BRAC’s pioneering ‘Targeting the Ultra-Poor Programme’, support participants for a fixed period of time, typically about 2 years, after which participants exit the programme and support is terminated. This contradicts the rights-based principle that social protection should be available to whoever needs it, whenever they need it. The new agenda on ‘shock-responsive’ social protection systems enables ‘potential’ programme recipients to be registered within a social protection system so that when shocks hit and they require support, they are able to register and make claims on social provisioning. This would apply equally to past graduates who subsequently fall back into eligibility – they should be allowed to re-register.
  2. Appropriate programmes: Many graduation programmes operate a single income-generating model or offer participants a limited set of livelihood options to choose from. Programme design, delivery and provision should be appropriate to participants’ contexts that influence the extent to which they are able to capitalise on graduation opportunities. This includes acknowledgement of individual situations such as household composition, dependency ratio and ability to do physically demanding work, as well as community-level factors such as availability of markets.
  3. Graduation should be based on applying clear and consistent eligibility criteria to determine whether each participant has exceeded graduation thresholds. Households that have not reached these thresholds should not be ‘exited’ but should remain on the programme for another cycle, or until they are assessed as ready to graduate, however long that takes. This principle requires that robust and transparent targeting, monitoring and evaluation systems and indicators are in place.
  4. Graduation should facilitate movement into other support as needed: ‘Developmental’ graduation sees graduation as a continuous pathway rather than a ‘threshold’ outcome. Instead of being abandoned, graduates should move from social assistance into social services, access to microfinance, and so on. The principle is graduation ‘into’ other forms of support, rather than ‘out of’ all forms of support. This is a rights-based principle that ensure ‘rights across the life-course’.
  5. Graduation programmes require accountability mechanisms: Issues such as inappropriate targeting, premature graduation and inadequate support post-graduation require strong and transparent accountability mechanisms. The establishment of grievance and complaints procedures, including an adequate response mechanism, is crucial for ensuring that graduation is underpinned by rights.
  6. Graduation is not for everybody: Some households will reach graduation thresholds within the timeframe of the programme, either because of bad luck (e.g. illness) or because they lack the necessary capabilities for generating self-reliant livelihoods. Instead of being neglected or abandoned once the programme cycle ends, these households should be moved out of graduation programmes and onto social assistance programmes, either permanently or temporarily. In Ethiopia’s graduation-oriented Productive Safety Net Programme, for example, women who fall pregnant are moved off Public Works and onto Direct Support until their new born child is one year old.


Even if most graduates remain better off than before they joined the programme, there will inevitably be some who fall back after they stop receiving programme support. ‘Responsible graduation’ requires making appropriate arrangements for these people and ensuring that there is a support and understanding for the fragility and vulnerability of circumstances that can push someone back into poverty. Only if graduation programmes are reconceptualised and redesigned along the lines suggested here, can they be seen as a component of a comprehensive and rights-based national social protection system.


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Programmes and centres
Centre for Social Protection

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