Conditional Cash Transfers: The Ups and Downs

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As a companion piece to the post that covered GiveDirectly’s method of giving unconditional funds to beneficiaries, here is an example from a World Bank study on when it might be appropriate to engage in conditional cash transfers (CCT).

Bolsa-FamiliaThe issue here is female school attendance. It is generally a very good thing to see more girls in school for longer periods of time; benefits include later average years for marriage, fewer rates of early pregnancy, fewer abortions, lower maternal and child mortality rates, increased labour force participation, and more broadly, higher GDP all around. The problem is that social and cultural factors often set girls at a disadvantage in keeping their school attendance rates up. The reasons are many, including limited educational funds that may be diverted to male children, local views that may not look warmly on educated women, or even just the difficult issues that a young woman faces surrounding menstruation.

The problem is particularly acute in Bangladesh, which has some of the lowest female educational attainment levels in the world. To tackle this, the World Bank (working with the Asian Development Bank and the Bangladeshi government) funded an educational project in the country it dubbed the Female Secondary School Assistance Project (FSSAP), which paid a monthly stipend to schoolgirls, from grade six up to grade ten, if they maintained good attendance and grades, and did not marry.

This touches on some of the ethical issues with CCTs – who is the World Bank to tell the girls whether or not they should get married, as long as they attain academic excellence? Taken to a certain point, one could argue that the program is in line with a ‘cultural imperialist’ agenda that seeks to Westernize the developing world, using cash as bait.

On the other hand, the whole reason the project designers made the conditions what they are is because they’re seeking the best results for their beneficiaries. Studies have shown them that early marriage is often one of the main barriers to continuing female education, and so they are addressing this barrier with their conditional cash transfer. Supporters of the project would say that this isn’t about an attempt at Westernization, but rather an attempt at increasing female education – which happens to be higher in Western countries, but shouldn’t be considered a ‘Western’ value. It’s a human value.

In short, CCTs are an interesting, if sometimes problematic way – equally as interesting and problematic as unconditional cash transfers a la GiveDirectly.

The project itself did indeed see benefits for the participating girls: an average of two more years of education compared to non-participants, which in turn led to a 3.6 to 10.6 percent increase in women’s labour force participation and a 1.4 to 2.3 year delay in the age of marriage.

So, the real question: would have the results been any worse or any better if the girls were just given the money directly? Hopefully, we’ll see that study soon!

Check out this DevEx post, which was the starting point and main reference for this piece. Also refer to this page for the original World Bank project report, and this page for the longer term assessment of the project.

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Ross Harding

Ross Harding

Ross is a non-profit project management professional based in Brampton, Canada.

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