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“If our work is not reaching the extreme poor, we’re not working hard enough.” Lauren Hendricks, Executive Director at CARE USA, threw that one out at us at “Strengthening the Economic Potential of the Bottom Billion,” a plenary session at the 2011 SEEP Annual Conference. The discussion tied in with the Vulnerable Populations workshop track, a group of four sessions in which organizers, panelists, and participants joined the ongoing dialogue, acutely aware of the challenge Lauren presented and eager to share experiences and lessons about meeting it. The membership of the SEEP Network is an incredibly heterogeneous group of actors across financial services, enterprise development, and market development. Diverse as they are though, all are entwined with the idea of serving the most vulnerable in the world and helping people empower themselves economically to transition out of poverty. Given that, one might then have spent the entirety of “SEEP Week” wandering, and wondering why Vulnerable Populations was just a track in the conference, and not a fundamental cross-cutting agenda – a primary concern for all. I listened in on some of the finance discussions happening in the conference rooms and along the corridors of the Sheridan National in Arlington, Virginia. This is a field almost entirely alien to me. I found myself tuning into the discourse of “social performance.” Crudely speaking, social performance is about understanding how the social goals of a (financial) institution translate into practice, and in turn, impact. At the same time though, just as Vulnerable Populations was just one of the tracks of the conference, social performance is just one among a number of big agenda items for the finance crowd. It’s just the same in my field, value chain development and market systems facilitation. I use SEEP’s Market Facilitation Initiative (MaFI) as a powerful source of information on global practice and experience, and seek the advice of a committed community of practice in almost all of my work. As part of my preparation for the workshop I was presenting in (“A Rising Tide Won’t Lift All Boats: From the Differential Needs of the Extreme Poor to Market Participation”) I looked over one of MaFI’s longest and most active discussions: “Can Systemic Interventions Reach the Poorest of the Poor?” – 14 pages of perspectives and comments from collectively over 200 years of practical experience (that’s an estimate). What came out of the discussion is that together with the question of reaching the very poor, we also rightly challenge ourselves to deliver change that affects a large number of people in a cost effective manner, and that is sustainable. (A quick plug, this and many other relevant discussions are still on fire on MaFI, so find out more about it and how you can become a listener or full member here). Meeting all three of these challenges is incredibly difficult. Poverty outreach, sustainability, and cost-effective scale are like the three corners of a Bermuda Triangle of economic empowerment. Many programs have entered that space and (their impacts) have never been seen again. Understandably then, we find ourselves hedging the risk of failure (intentionally and unintentionally) by flying along one side of the triangle, keeping our distance from the last challenge. For example, value chain development at its best reaches scale sustainably by facilitating systemic change driven by permanent market actors themselves. But these market system approaches are typically not great at showing their impacts on the poorest. Another example: careful graduation programs are able to reach the extreme poor sustainably, but struggle with scalability. Finally, large-scale social protection can reach very many very poor people; we have seen, however, that making the benefit for those people sustainable is problematic, as is the sustainability of the systems that deliver the benefits. All of the workshops in the Vulnerable Populations track are framed well by the questions underlying the Bermuda Triangle of economic empowerment: Is it possible to “do” poverty outreach, sustainability, and scale well in a single program at once? If we can, how? Who is already doing it and how are they doing it? If it is not possible to do these three things well at once, what are the best ways of balancing these competing issues? How are programs setting the scales? (Read onto Part 2, "Workshops," here).
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