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Building Livelihoods & Promoting Rights? The Graduation Approach to Social Protection

Date: 27 Jun 2016

This UNRISD Seminar will examine whether graduation, in the context of social protection schemes, is a viable way to help people move out of extreme poverty and develop productive, resilient and sustainable livelihoods, thus supporting states in meeting their obligations to rights holders.

In the context of social protection schemes, there are generally two forms of "graduation": threshold graduation and sustainable graduation. Threshold graduation simply requires beneficiaries to reach a certain age or participate in a programme for a certain period of time, for example. Sustainable graduation, on the other hand, occurs when beneficiaries reach a previously established level of welfare and a certain level of resilience against shocks.

At this event, panellists will discuss:

  • whether or not graduation is compatible with a human rights-based approach to social protection;
  • different contexts in which it is applicable, such as climate-change adapted contexts; and
  • how it can be adapted to meet the needs of different groups, such as refugees and other displaced persons.


Stephen Kidd, Director and Senior Social Policy Specialist, Development Pathways: The Evidence on "Graduation" Programmes

Lauren Whitehead, Program Manager, Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative, BRAC USA: The Ultra Poor Graduation Approach

The Current Debate

Proponents of graduation programmes argue that the ultra-poor are frequently left behind by development policies, and that they do not benefit from non-inclusive economic growth. Graduation programmes, on the other hand, provide asset transfers that aim to increase productivity and household income, and strengthen livelihoods of the ultra-poor. Graduation, in this context, is measured based on indicators such as “food security, stabilized and diversified income, increased assets (including savings), improved access to healthcare, increased self-confidence and a plan for the future”. Moreover, participants are encouraged to determine their own aspirations, which should be taken into consideration when designing specific graduation programmes. This feature of graduation programmes fulfils the principles of dignity, autonomy, and meaningful and effective participation required in human rights-based social protection systems.

Listen to Lauren Whitehead explain the history and objectives of the graduation approach to social protection.

Those critical of the graduation approach question its financial feasibility and sustainability. Because the graduation approach is fairly recent, there is a lack of long-term evidence that graduates will be able to have continued success. Another critique is that the graduation approach is based on rights holders being able to provide certain types of social assistance for themselves, which may exclude children, the elderly, people with severe disabilities and households without any available labour force.

Listen to Stephen Kidd provide a critical perspective on the graduation approach to social protection.

A Human Rights-Based Approach

There are additional concerns over whether the graduation approach embodies a human rights-based approach to social protection, when the nature of the programmes themselves means that support will be withdrawn once beneficiaries reach a previously established level of welfare that may or may not be sustained in the future.

Graduation programmes target the poorest segments of society. Although from a human-rights-based perspective, targeting should only be an instrument toward the progressive realization of universal coverage, resource constraints may mean that states, especially those in the South, have to focus on the poorest parts of the population in social protection schemes.

When targeting is unavoidable, the mechanism should abide by the principles of equality and non-discrimination. This means, for example, that the eligibility criteria adopted should be objective, reasonable and transparent, and that stigmatization of beneficiaries should be avoided.

Further Reading

To learn more about the graduation approach to social protection, please see our further reading list.

Photo: Michele M. F. (CC BY 2.0 via Flickr).