Sustaining Human Capital Investment: Local Women Leaders in Conditional Cash Transfers

Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) are social programs that provide stipends to low-income families and individuals who meet certain conditions, such as ensuring their children receive mandatory vaccinations or meet school attendance requirements. CCTs have had a positive impact on the lives of poor people, particularly in Latin America, by providing families with funds to spend on education and nutrition. However, whether CCTs create a sustainable impact on human capital development once a given program has ended is still heavily debated.

Researchers Macours and Vakis tackle this question of sustainability by examining Atención a Crisis: a one-year CCT program in Nicaragua. Following the end of the program, they investigate the mechanisms that fostered continued investment in child health and education.

The Atención program tested multiple transfer schemes. In its 2006 pilot program, 3,000 households received a basic cash transfer with the condition that children in grant-receiving families attend primary school and visit local health centers regularly. In addition to the basic cash transfer, one-third of recipients received a scholarship for vocational training for one adult, and an additional one-third received a $200 USD lump-sum grant to invest in a small business. A number of beneficiaries were also recruited from the CCT recipients to serve as volunteer ‘promotoras’. These promotoras, serving as community leaders, were responsible for communicating the program’s aims and objectives, and facilitating group meetings with several families.

Macours and Vakis hypothesized that both the cash transfers and the inclusion of promotoras in the program would have a positive effect on the program’s outcomes. To test their hypothesis, participants were randomly grouped together, each group being led by one promotora. A lottery system was then used to determine which transfer scheme a household would receive. This double randomization ensured that the groups and their leaders, along with the treatment they received, were randomly assigned. The researchers theorized that promotoras who received the larger lump-sum package, compared to the standard cash transfer, would show more personal ownership over the CCT objectives and guide the families they coached to more improved, sustainable outcomes.

The authors measured post-program child outcomes using a self-reported survey that captured school attendance, share of food expenditure on animal products and vegetables, and parents’ aspirations for their children. The authors measured persistence as consistent improvement in school attendance and other outcomes as far as two years after the program ended. Based on their analysis, there was a statistically significant impact on parents’ expectations and aspirations for their children for those where at least 60 percent of promotoras in one’s registration assembly received the lump-sum grant to start a new business. More specifically, two years following the initial intervention, having access to one additional leader who received the lump-sum grant was associated with an increase in children’s school attainment of 0.18 additional years of schooling. This suggests that families had higher aspirations for their children if their promotoras were economically better off.

Involving women from the community as program ambassadors has proven to be successful for improving childhood outcomes after CCT programs end. Local mothers are reliable leaders because of their proven commitment to addressing education and overall child development. Their involvement can help to ensure that a program’s objectives—fostering investments in education and health—continue even after a program’s completion. If the objective of a CCT intervention is to change household attitudes in the long-term, future development programs should take note of local social dynamics and capitalize on the potential of local leaders.

Article source: Macours, Karen, and Renos Vakis. “Sustaining Impacts When Transfers End: Women Leaders, Aspirations, and Investment in Children.National Bureau of Economic Research, No. w22871. (2016).

Featured photo: cc/(piccaya, photo ID: 599463150, from iStock by Getty Images)

Antra Bhatt
Antra Bhatt is an Economist by training with a keen interest in gender policy and methods of policy analysis. Prior to joining Harris, she was working with Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, India as Assistant Professor. At TISS, she taught quantitative research methodology and also worked on development policy related research. Prior to joining TISS, she worked as a consultant with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations at their Rome Headquarters, Italy. She has also worked as a consultant with the Asian Development Bank on a project on ‘Sovereign Debt Sustainability in Asia Pacific’.

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