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Out of reach: targeting fails to keep pace with household dynamics


Can poverty-targeting work if founded in fluid, fuzzy households?

Can poverty-targeting work effectively if it assumes fast-changing households are static? Nicola Ansell discusses research which underscores the challenges to the selection mechanisms ahead of a forthcoming global review of the evidence.


Nicola Ansell

What is a household? Around the world, policymakers frequently confront this seemingly simple concept, only to find that it is far from straightforward. Many African countries have introduced social cash transfer schemes over the past decade, and often these target the most vulnerable, based on assessments of household demographics, income and assets. However, a three-year study of the impacts of cash transfers in rural communities in Malawi and Lesotho questions the very notion of ‘the household’ which such targeting relies upon.

The village-based qualitative research, undertaken by universities in the UK, Sweden, Malawi and Lesotho, reveals that households are not stable and bounded entities that can be straightforwardly targeted by cash transfer programmes. Lesotho’s Child Grants Programme and Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Programme both use combinations of proxy means testing and community-based targeting that outwardly furnish the programmes with an aura of good practice. Yet, because poverty is inherently dynamic and households are constantly in flux, any targeting exercise is out of date by the time the first payment is made. This makes it appear – correctly – to communities that households are inappropriately selected, resulting in a widespread sense of unfairness.

The fuzzy, fluid household

Households take different forms in different societies: they are not the clear-cut units of production and consumption that policy-makers imagine. In Lesotho, for instance, rural people often reside in extended family units, related through a male line. In southern Malawi, households tend to be smaller, more nuclear units, yet they live in very close proximity to maternal relatives.

People move into and out of households on a frequent basis. Rural areas tend to lack employment opportunities, so people go in search of work and return to the village when work comes to an end. Marriage and divorce, too, are associated with movement and children are often circulated between extended family households depending on needs and opportunities. In Malawi, the collapse of a mud brick house is a common occurrence, prompting the fragmentation, and subsequent re-composition, of households. Our research uncovered a case in Lesotho where a woman and her children had moved out of the village before they even learned they qualified for a child grant. Her husband Births and deaths, too, are common occurrences that may go unreported.

Our research in the Malawi village found that of the eight households receiving cash transfers, only one retained its original makeup over a two-year interval (see table 1, below). The targeting of cash transfers based on demographic indicators (such as the requirement for Malawi’s recipient households to have a dependency ratio above 3) cannot possibly keep pace with such change in a cost-effective manner.

Malawi cash transfer recipient household composition changes

Even if it were possible to identify who lives together as a household, doing so would not reveal how resources are distributed both within and beyond the household. Many households receive remittances from relatives who reside elsewhere (migrant workers, for instance) albeit often on an ad hoc basis. Households containing an elderly person and several grandchildren may look similar on the surface, but the resources they can call upon are quite different. Moreover, individuals have obligations to people in households other than their own, including children caring for elderly grandparents.

Responding to targeted transfers

Given such fluidity, it is unsurprising that households may be actively reconfigured in order to maximise the amount received from cash transfers. In Malawi, we found children who were recorded as belonging to different households for different grants.

In addition, sluggish case management often leads people to manager household changes in their own ways. In Malawi, for example, the death of a nominated recipient should be reported and may mean that the household no longer qualifies for a transfer. In practice, in three of the eight cash transfer recipient households in the village, relatives had simply ‘inherited’ the transfers following the recipient’s death. In two of these cases, conflicts arose as non-resident family members lodged claims to the transfers based on customary inheritance practices. Grace, a teenage girl, returned to live with her relatively affluent parents following her great-grandmother’s death, taking the transfer with her. Thus a cash transfer that had targeted an elderly woman living in a simple house with no fields of livestock and ‘caring for’ her grandchild now benefited one of the least poor households in the village.

Unfairness and resentment

Unsurprisingly, the set of households receiving cash transfers in the two villages that we studied corresponded neither to numerical assessments of the neediest nor to community perceptions of the most deserving. Based on our own household profiling exercise in the Lesotho village, the two households with children scoring the lowest on the proxy means test used for the child grant did not receive it. Moreover, only one of the seven households with children that had a multi-dimensional poverty index above 0.5 (i.e. those experiencing greatest poverty) was receiving the grant.

From the perspective of community members, targeting appears rather arbitrary. Community-based targeting practices involve a select group of villagers and are far from transparent. In Lesotho, child grants are referred to as seoa holimo, meaning ‘money falling from the sky’. Those who receive them often express bafflement as to why they have been selected. One young father declared “To other people, it is as if I am getting it by mistake”. In Malawi, many people talk of having ‘got lucky’. At the same time, they report that they are gossiped about and experience resentment from neighbours. A young woman receiving a child grant in Lesotho observed of her non-receiving peers: “They aren’t happy, I would say that because, truly, these people are really struggling, they live in difficulty, just as ourselves.” Interviews with non-recipients similarly revealed a lack of comprehension of the basis for targeting and often a view that certain households are favoured, for instance because they are related to the chief. The usual sentiment expressed was that all people are poor, so all should receive. As a male child grant recipient in Lesotho commented: “We are praying that others be helped also […] this was said to be social development, so others need to be helped also so that we all move forward.”

It is clear from our research that ‘fair’ household targeting is not possible. There are some ways in which targeting might be improved by better implementation, better case management and greater transparency, but implementing these improvements would be very costly. More significantly, they can never fully resolve the underlying problems of dynamic incomes and household composition. Experience of Lesotho’s universal pension indicates a far higher level of acceptability among the community, as well as material benefits that extend beyond the elderly themselves to other household and community members. Ultimately, universal transfers would seem to be the only practical and just way forward.

Nicola Ansell is a Professor of Geography at Brunel University. She has a research interest in the impacts of social and cultural change on the lives of young people and the research project examines the impacts of social cash transfers on generational relations. More details and policy briefs are available at www.cashtransfers-youth.net.

The research comes ahead of a global review of the evidence on the effectiveness of poverty-targeting and other selection mechanisms by Development Pathways, in collaboration with the Church of Sweden.



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