Government social protection schemes and conventional microfinance interventions have struggled to reach the poorest and help them escape the confines of extreme poverty. In response, BRAC in Bangladesh experimented with an innovative approach that combined livelihood creation, financial services, and social safety nets in order to ‘graduate’ participants out of extreme poverty and toward a sustainable livelihood. Inspired by BRAC’s success, CGAP and the Ford Foundation launched an initiative to test and adapt BRAC’s approach in a variety of countries and contexts through their Graduation Programme. This paper focuses on the Graduation Programme implementation in West Bengal, India. By using a qualitative life history approach, we found that prior to joining the programme, participants had different ‘idiosyncratic resources and risks’ that defined their starting points. Programme performance among participants was largely based on a combination of these starting points, programme functioning, and the use of personal agency. Where the programmes were implemented as designed, they succeeded in strengthening participants’ individual and household resources, and access to social networks, and expanding certain spheres of influence. However, some constraints were too deeply established to influence.
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