Challenging Our Concepts of Scale

By Jaya Sarkar

VP, Programs


“Trickle Up should not think of scale,”

advised Sisir Pradhan of the Odisha Livelihoods Mission (OLM) during his presentation on government and NGO relations during Trickle Up’s recent global staff training in India. “It is the government’s job to think about scale.”


Everyone in the room drew a hesitant breath. Every NGO wants to focus on scale and reach more people to fulfill their mission. And most funders will scoff at proposals that don’t include significant scale with large numbers of participants.


“What Trickle Up should think about are scale gaps,” he continued.

Scale gaps? “When we talk about scale as a government, we are interested in reaching large numbers of people and we will generally miss about 10% of the population. It is this sector of population, those who are left out of scale efforts often due to multiple layers of vulnerability, who are difficult to address in broad government implementation, who stand a high risk of living in ultrapoverty forever.” Aha! A role for NGOs.


OLM has set ambitious goals to reach 5 million households living in extreme poverty and vulnerability (25 million people) and support them to be “free of all forms of poverty and able to cope with all types of vulnerability” as per their mission.

As OLM progresses in reaching this goal, they have identified 3,800 villages, representing 8% of their target population, with high concentrations of people living in extreme poverty and with multiple vulnerabilities. They recognize that in order to reach their goal they must arrest poverty in these villages, as these are the individuals who fall into the scale gap. Effectively delivering their program in these areas is not simple. Delivery of government services to scale gap areas is impeded because:


  1. Governments must operate with tight cost margins that are difficult to maintain in areas of poor access and multiple dimensions of poverty which are often more expensive in delivery and adaptations to design of project services.
  2. Investments tend to be made at a central level and delivering programs to remote areas is not only a logistical challenge, but also a challenge of human resources. It’s difficult to retain highly skilled people to work in these areas.
  3. Target populations are often not aware of programs that should be available to them, preventing increased demand for services from triggering additional investments or the capacity to deliver them.
  4. The villages identified as falling into the scale gap are generally geographically isolated and difficult to access. They have significant populations that have been historically marginalized and socially excluded.


Improving government capacity to address scale gaps

Despite political will and commitment to reach Sustainable Development Goal #1, ending all forms of poverty everywhere, even high functioning governments will face pockets of seemingly intractable poverty or “scale gaps.” Governments have done relatively well in universal programs for food security, rights to land, information, jobs, and work. But do these social protection programs address ultrapoverty? In order to end extreme poverty, and ensure the full enjoyment of rights, these scale gaps must be addressed.


By working in close partnership with government agencies within the very areas that have been most difficult to make progress, Trickle Up can model an approach within the government ecosystem to make the case for reaching those left behind in large government programs at scale. Embedding adaptations within our partnerships can generate learning and evidence on addressing the multiple dimensions of poverty that can be used to inform policy, design, and delivery to reach the populations at greatest risk of being left behind. Approaches utilizing digital technology might also make it easier for people to register for their eligible benefits, thus increasing demand for and linkage to government-financed and available services.


Over Trickle Up’s three-year partnership with the National Rural Livelihoods Mission in the states of Odisha and Jharkhand, the government has expressed appreciation for our support in bringing the voice and experience of participants to policy discussions and decisions. Our joint program implementation has led to several adaptations in delivery of services including:

  • Adjusting prescribed staffing ratios to accommodate more disperse populations.
  • Additional capacity building focusing on inclusion to ensure that staff were equipped to address the dynamics of marginalization.
  • Adapting standards and training to allow for “natural leaders” from within the communities to be identified and trained to support the program.


Why focus on scale gaps?

Effective work in scale gap areas requires greater short-term investment and linkages to other government programs. Trickle Up and OLM have learned important lessons on how to specifically tailor these projects to achieve impact for the poorest. These models must be documented to better inform policy adaptations and make a compelling case for funders about scale gaps. They need to focus on depth of scale in reaching those who would otherwise be left behind rather than breadth of scale in seeking universal coverage that generally exclude roughly 10% of the population.


If we are to eradicate poverty, we must leave no one behind. Joint collaboration between governments and NGOs have found innovations and adaptations to reach populations in extreme poverty with multiple vulnerabilities. To scale these solutions, governments, NGOs, and funders themselves must commit to focusing on adapting policy, program design, and delivery mechanisms to ensure the inclusion of all.