Published on Let's Talk Development

Should cash transfers be systematically paid to mothers?

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When I was a high school student in Belgium, our history textbook included a reproduction of a painting entitled “The Drunkard” by Eugène Laermans. The painting was included in the section describing the history of the labor movement in the country and its achievements in passing legislation aimed at improving the situation of the working class. In particular, the painting was meant to illustrate why the Belgian law introducing child benefits – monthly transfers to all families raising children until age 18 (or until age 25 as long as they are still students) - stipulates that these benefits are paid to the mother. The law still holds today, even if it allows for exceptions when the mother is not present in the household.


I still remember that painting vividly, many years after graduating from high school. And who knows, it might explain why in my recent research I have been interested in the role played by fathers and mothers in investing in their children’s education, health, and overall welfare.

In policy circles, both in low and high income countries, it is often assumed that giving transfers to mothers rather than fathers will lead to better outcomes. This assumption is based on more than 19th century paintings or anecdotal evidence: several research papers investigating bargaining inside the household suggest that resources under the mother’s control have a stronger positive impact on a child’s health and schooling than when those resources are controlled by the father. For example, Duncan Thomas in 1990 found that in Brazil, unearned income in the hands of a mother has a bigger effect on her family's health than income under the control of a father and that effect is particularly strong for child survival probabilities.

Presumably because of the influence of this previous line of research, almost all current cash transfer programs give the resources to the mother, so it is not possible to disentangle how much of any impact is due to the recipient’s gender, how much is due to the income effect, and how much is due to the change in relative prices associated with the conditionality.

However, a systematic review by Yoong, Rabinovich and Diepeveen of the role of the recipient’s gender who receives cash transfers concluded that “a substantive body of research that carefully considers issues of selection and attribution is still a crucial missing part of developing gender-mainstreaming in transfer programs” and that given the growing popularity and importance of cash transfers as a poverty alleviation tool across the developing world, it was important to develop the evidence base.  
The randomized control trial that I conducted in rural Burkina Faso together with Richard Akresh and Harounan Kazianga and whose results are reported in our recent working paper contributes to this evidence base. The two-year pilot program randomly distributed cash transfers that were either conditional or unconditional and were given to either mothers or fathers. Conditionality was linked to older children enrolling in school and attending regularly and younger children receiving preventive health check-ups. To our knowledge, our study is the only randomized experiment to investigate in the same context both the role of conditionality and the gender of the recipient in a cash transfer program targeting all children, boys and girls, up to age 15 and to study the impact of those different cash transfer modalities on a broad range of education, health, and household welfare outcomes.
We found that the cash transfers generally improved those outcomes. However, the gender of the transfer’s recipient as well as the conditionality leads to differentiated impacts. For school enrollment and most child health outcomes, conditional cash transfers outperform unconditional cash transfers. We provide further details on the role of conditionality in this paper and this post.
Our results on the transfer recipient’s gender suggest that the assumption that it is always better to give transfers to the mother should be questioned or at least nuanced. This is somewhat surprising given the existing empirical evidence suggesting that mothers’ resources have stronger effects on child human capital than fathers’ resources. While giving cash to mothers seems slightly, but not significantly, better for education outcomes, giving cash to fathers leads to significantly better nutritional outcomes during years when the harvest has been poor. Transfers given to fathers also lead to increased livestock ownership, higher agricultural production in cash crops, and relatively more investment in the house’s equipment (electricity and metal roofs).
These results might be context specific given the strong cultural norm in West Africa prescribing that fathers are responsible for feeding their family, but they still suggest that policy makers should not automatically assume that it is always preferable to have mothers as the transfer’s recipients.


Damien de Walque

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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