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The Freedom to Choose What’s Right

Antonio Lambino's picture

I attended a fascinating session recently on Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) in a developing country which shall not be named for various reasons.  Let’s call it Cadania for present purposes.

CCTs, simply put, “are cash payments to poor households that meet certain behavioral requirements, generally related to children’s health care and education” (The World Bank).  In other words, money is given to a qualified household if it can be demonstrated that children are in school or brought in for regular medical check-ups.  It is, therefore, conditionality at the individual household level.

A massive media content analysis, conducted on thousands of newspaper articles over several years, suggests that press coverage was largely favorable toward the project.  Positive and neutral stories outnumbered negative stories by a large margin over a five year period. 

Through this media content analysis, it was found that “conditionalities” were quite newsworthy, although not in the usual sense.  Conditionality, as we all know, has a mixed track record, with some of the most vociferous protests against the international system, both legitimate and otherwise, hinging on this issue.  Typically, negative views on conditionality center on the external imposition of conditions on aid or loan recipients.

In Cadania’s CCT press coverage, these conditions are discussed in terms of their positive purposes – from the fulfillment of human rights to dependency reduction – and should therefore be enforced as strictly as possible.  Parental responsibility didn’t seem to be an issue; for instance, some might have argued that parents are in the best position to decide whether a child should work in the family farm vs. go to school (I personally prefer school but my opinion on this matter doesn’t really count).  So we find, at least in Cadania, that CCTs are very popular and that the conditions attached to them are viewed positively across the political spectrum. 

As described above, CCTs support behavior change toward desired development outcomes.  Lawrence Susskind (2006) argues that we can get people to change behavior, sometimes, by coercing them with force.  If that doesn’t work, we can try manipulating incentives.  And if that fails, we need to persuade.  The conditionalities inherent to CCTs are essentially in Susskind’s middle category, manipulating people’s incentives, i.e., “You get money if you send your children to school.” 

But whose incentives?  Clearly those of the parents, not the pundits.  Yet why are Cadanian pundits from various political persuasions supportive of CCTs as well?  I believe this is the case because these pundits have already been persuaded (Susskind’s third category) that the program is a good one.  Depending on how you frame it, CCTs can appeal to both conservative and liberal thought.  Perhaps conservatives like CCTs because they provide people with the “freedom to choose what’s right” for their kids.  Although if they choose what’s wrong, they don’t get the money.  And perhaps liberals like CCTs because they tend to see these conditionalities – in health and education -- as rights.  Although instead of the state providing these services, as a fulfillment of social contract obligations, households are given money to pay for these services.  Given the positive press coverage, reasons for supporting CCTs seem to outweigh the reservations on both sides of the political spectrum.

And the political outcomes look very promising.  In a study on the political effects of CCTs in Cadania, it was found that being a CCT beneficiary was associated with increased electoral support for the incumbent head of state.  The estimated electoral impact of the CCT program was increased support from around 5% of the electorate.  So it seems to me that CCTs not only make for good policy, they can also make for good politics.

Photo credit: Flickr user cambodiaforkidsorg


Submitted by Angelica Silvero on
like everything else in life, this is not perfect either. as we get more children vaccinated and sent to schools we have families depending on this money, wishing to remain poor, and selling their votes.

Submitted by Daniel Monchuk on
I don’t think that there is any question as to the importance of education in developing human capital (also keep in mind that there are many means of developing HC and school is one of these). However, if the only condition imposed on the children is that they attend school, it is not altogether surprising that it may be difficult to find hard evidence of any benefit to the children themselves. As anyone who has fallen asleep while at school knows, physically being at school does not necessarily mean that you are learning anything. I am sure that these types of cash payments are a great first step to get children to attend their schools. What about a next step where some of the payment is conditional on what the children actually learn? To start, surely the bar does not need to be too high and can be adjusted over time to meet education attainment goals.

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