Saturday, July 7, 2018

Cash transfers vs. comprehensive social protection programs

I recently read an interesting article looking at different approaches to social protection programs.  For the past decade or more, inspired largely by a successful program in Brazil, conditional cash transfers have been all the rage in the development world.  In a conditional cash transfer program, targeted poor families receive a cash or in-kind benefit, sort of a minimum guaranteed income, as long as they fulfill some socially-desireable behavior, usually sending school-age kids to school and vaccinating little kids.  I think many development actors appreciated that these programs were a big improvement on many project-type development interventions, from improving ag productivity to pushing sex education, because instead of trying to do things for the poor in one-off programs that ended when donor funding ran out, conditional cash transfers were often led by poor countries themselves, and looked more like the comprehensive social welfare programs that make life tolerable for the poor in wealthier countries.  But according to this article, conditional cash transfers became a development fad (as microfinance did before them), and something that made sense at the scale it was initially tried (and especially because it was funded by poor countries themselves) became a go-to darling solution for donors to fund.  Anyway, the article contrasts conditional cash transfers with larger, more "boring" social security programs (disability payments, payments to the elderly and poor families with children), which the author prefers.  Not knowing all the nuances myself, it seems that this may be a distinction of scale and degree.  To me, the means-testing and other eligibility requirements for social security programs look a lot like the conditions of a conditional cash transfer program, just done in a more universal and thorough way.  My understanding from the article is that the main difference is a reframing of the cash benefit as a right as opposed to a lucky gift from a donor, and more protagonism placed on the government offering the benefit to its citizens, as opposed to donors funding the program.  Anyway, it makes for good reading for us development-heads.

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