A conversation with Sachi Shenoy about the UPna sapna pilot, strategies for ultra poor selection, and the future of reaching the very bottom of the economic pyramid

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Unitus Labs and Sorenson Legacy Foundation recently released the first case study as part of a series on their Ultra Poor Initiative to alleviate extreme poverty. Conducted in partnership with Jharkhand-based NGO NEEDS, the program known as UPna sapna (translated to “Our Vision” in Hindi) is a “two year, agricultural livelihood-led ultra poor support program launched in Santhal Pargana, often cited as one of the poorest regions of India.” The case study reviews the structure of the program and highlights key learnings in identifying and engaging extremely poor tribal households in Santhal Pargana.

Sachi Shenoy, who originally designed the Ultra Poor Initiative for Unitus and is overseeing its completion, offered her thoughts via a telephone conversation during which she discussed her own path to working with the ultra poor, as well as the key learnings from the experience with the NEEDS pilot.

Sachi’s first introduction to the world of the ultra poor and how different programs have to be created to cater to that segment started when she interned with SKS to help write a business plan for its Ultra Poor Program. After SKS, she joined Unitus to explore initiatives outside of its core microfinance acceleration activities. Through the Ultra Poor Initiative, Unitus challenged its network of 23 microfinance partners from all over the world to think about how they would serve the ultra poor, and experiment with different interventions. Unitus chose six organizations and offered grants as well technical assistance from its program staff to help pilot interventions. In the process, Unitus strove to not be prescriptive and to instead foster a sense of creativity.

As a result, six very different pilots were created, each with their own learnings, successes, and failures. In order to

NEEDS field staff (standing, foreground) hold a community meeting in the Santhal Pargana region of Jharkhand to solicit interest in participating in the UPna sapna program, designed to alleviate extreme poverty. UPna sapna is a play on the phrase "our vision" in Hindi. Photo credit: Sachi Shenoy

capture this experience and make it useful for others who want to work with the ultra poor, Unitus and its partners decided to publisha case study on each pilot.

Written by former Unitus Labs (then known as Unitus) staff member Victoria Fiore, the first case study describes the NEEDS pilot in Jharkhand and focuses on selection of ultra poor households. As Sachi explains, selection is the hardest part of any ultra poor effort. Ultra poverty is often defined in a relative sense. This means that the characteristics of the target client are going to be different depending on where one goes. The selection process eventually used by NEEDS and Unitus should shed some light on how practitioners should draw up an ultra poor profile.

NEEDS also developed a “NEEDS UP” index to measure indicators and determine which households were ‘ultra poor’. This unique index, which includes factors such as type of home, amount of land, and a number of region-specific factors, helped account for many more granular factors than other poverty scorecards were able to. Sachi comments that other rural communities in India may be able to adapt a form of this survey, but will need to revise the index according to their specific context.

In addition to the informative content on selection, Sachi highlights some of the learnings from the pilot. One is the importance of providing an interactive component to the intervention. Getting the ultra poor active and participating in improving their own welfare early on was a key factor in NEEDS’s success; other programs promote interventions such as food subsidies, healthcare and financial literacy training at the outset. In the UPna sapna pilot, the ultra poor beneficiaries responded most enthusiastically when they were engaged in productive activity and started to earn an income. With this kind of empowerment as the anchor, parallel activities that include other forms of support (health, education, etc.) can be integrated as well.

Continuing to build on the learnings of the Ultra Poor Initiative, in late 2010 Sachi and a team of colleagues formed a new company, Upaya Social Ventures, to lead the development of enterprise solutions to address the needs of the ultra poor. Sachi cites the continued work on the Ultra Poor Initiative and the resulting case studies as laying an educational foundation for Upaya, and sees the lessons of the UPna sapna pilot and the other partners guiding Upaya’s future work.

For more information on the case study, please see the Unitus press release here. The entire case study can be accessed here. This will be the first in a series of six case studies.

To learn more about Upaya and learn about its first project, check out the organization’s website here.

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