Rights, accountability and social programs

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ImageI recently participated in a seminar in Santiago de Chile on ‘Conditional Cash Transfers and Human Rights’. A few years ago I would have wondered what could possibly be the link between the two. Not anymore.

Since working on a book on CCTs, I have become acutely aware of the debates surrounding rights-based approaches to social policy. On the one hand, rights-based proponents of social protection tend to favor universal transfers, while on the other hand, economists argue that in low-income countries targeting is necessary to ensure that scarce resources are directed to the poorest. Similarly, while the human rights perspective may view conditionalities (e.g. school attendance and health check-ups) as barriers to accessing transfers and services, economists view them as supporting investments in human capital.

As is often the case, I have found that much of debate is permeated by differences in language and distrust over motivations. Having participated in a number of discussions on the topic over the past couple of years, it is my strong impression that when the dust settles, there is much in common between the concerns of proponents of CCT programs and human rights activists: a focus on governance and accountability provide the space for a fruitful interaction between them.

At the bottom of it, the key (shared) concern is how to avoid errors of exclusion –that is, poor households that qualify for benefits not receiving them— and exposing individuals and households that are already experiencing adversities of various types to further hardships, including in many cases the risk of abuse and exploitation by politicians, service providers or a variety of intermediaries involved.  This concern is rooted in the recognition that these programs operate in the context of deeply unequal relationships whereby the intended recipients typically have limited voice and resources to protect themselves from the state and its agents.

While the language in which these concerns are expressed differs significantly, the operational responses are, for the most part, the same.  Having transparent eligibility criteria, accompanied by strong communication efforts helps ensure that the right benefits get to the right people at the right time. This is key to helping make sure that rights are realized and that those who are eligible for benefits receive them. Putting in place grievance and redress mechanisms that allow those that feel they have been wronged to make the necessary complains –and a speedy process to deal with those. Designing programs to avoid (or minimize) un-necessary burdens to participants, which often requires decisive actions at the school or health clinic.

These, and other similar issues, are the challenges faced by CCT programs –and, in fact, by all safety net programs.  Significant experimentation has been taking place, including on how to use new technologies, to address them. Many of the critical questions are highly operational.  What is the best grievance mechanism (hotlines, in person, etc.)?  Do electronic payment systems reduce the chance for abuse and manipulation? How to design an information campaign so that the intended recipients understand their rights and obligations?  These are critical issues at the center of well functioning programs and social protection systems.

I left the Santiago meeting with a hopeful sense that bringing together the communities of human rights activists and managers of CCT (and other safety net programs) around the topic of accountability is both possible and fruitful.


Ariel Fiszbein

Education Program Director, Inter-American Dialogue

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