Published on Development Impact

Are Two Heads Better Than One?

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In his seminal work on intrahousehold allocation and farming households, Chris Udry showed that households inefficiently allocated resources across men’s and women’s fields.  Now that is a setting where men and women had separate farms and you can imagine a whole bunch of frictions that could come up to make things difficult. What about cases where they work on the same fields, together? Could there be gains if things were organized differently? 

In a new paper out this week we take a look at an intervention that was designed to try and answer that question. The setting is Ivory Coast. We worked with APROMAC, the Ivorian rubber professional association, who was distributing subsidized seedlings (as part of a campaign to improve the national rubber stock with high yielding varieties) combined with training.  

This training included a fairly short gender module, 3 days of agricultural extension on rubber cultivation and the creation of an action plan for farmers about how they were going to manage their rubber fields over the next two years. Now, one group got the training with just the “lead” farmer for the household – always the man in our sample. And in a second group (randomly chosen among eligible households) the lead farmer had to bring their wife. 

Two years after the training, we went back to see what had happened. If you know anything about rubber, you know that it takes about 6 years before they begin producing latex (overleaf would have been much quicker).  So we start our focus with investment. The solo farmers planted 140 trees more than the control group during this period. The couples planted more than double that: 290.  So significantly more investment.

Now there’s a cost to this investment: the harvest value of all crops falls significantly for the solo farmers – dropping by $357 or 26 percent relative to the control mean – probably due to the diversion of labor and other inputs to planting the new trees. For the couples’ group we see no significant drop in harvest value – the net point estimate for them is quite close to zero (-11). 

So what’s making this happen? Couples are more likely to be using chemical inputs – particularly on rubber plots. The use of insecticides and herbicides increases by 9 percentage points relative to the control group (whose mean is 31 percent of plots).  There are also some movements in labor. Looking across all plots, the male lead farmer is working 1.9 hours more per week. Zooming in on rubber plots, total hours per hectare are up by around 5 hours for the household as a whole, with planter hours up 1.8 hours, and his spouse putting in 0.9 hours more.

Pretty neat. Now what could have caused this?  We start by looking at skills. Maybe two educated heads are better than one. There doesn’t appear to be anything here. At our follow up survey, the couples’ training group doesn’t show significantly higher knowledge than either the control group or the solo group. And, perhaps interestingly, in a survey right after the training, the planters in the couples’ group thought their spouse knew more, but that perception  faded by the time of the follow-up survey.

Maybe it’s incentives? Not likely. We look at the amount of total or harvest revenue that the wife of the lead farmer controls, as well as the proportion of plots where she takes part in income decisions. In no case is the couples’ group significantly higher than the solo farm group. Interestingly, the gender training they both had may have made a tiny bit of a difference since the proportion of rubber plots where the spouse takes part in income decisions goes up by a whopping 1 (ish) percentage point (but, hey, the control mean is zero). And intrahousehold decision making (on things like large purchases) doesn’t move at all. 

The answer seems to be farm management. Remember that as part of this training the farmers had to produce action plans. The couples produce better action plans than the solo folks. First, there are more tasks listed on them.  More importantly, more of those tasks have people assigned to be responsible for them. And the spouse has more tasks assigned, and more tasks with sole responsibility. Finally, there is some suggestion that the couples found these plans useful – they are significantly more likely than the solo group to still have their action plan two years after the training.

This sole responsibility for tasks seems to come with a significant shake up of the usual gender division of labor. Ervin Dervisevic, our valiant research assistant, classified all of the farming tasks by gender specialization using the baseline data. Looking at the follow up survey, we can see that those in the couples’ training are about 26 percentage points more likely to have a spouse responsible for a male dominated task on their action plans than the solo group. Looking at farming inputs two years later, this sole responsibility task assignment is also correlated with higher incidence of chemical input use as well as hired labor.

So, if you want to get farmers to plant more trees, you can subsidize them and give the farmers some training, including a plan. But if you want them to plant a lot more trees, and not sacrifice current production, make sure their wives come. This work suggests that joint farm management and planning skills might be fertile avenue for boosting agricultural production. And maybe, with a little more work, we might also boost female empowerment at the same time.


Aletheia Amalia Donald

Economist, Gender Innovation Lab, World Bank

Markus Goldstein

Lead Economist, Africa Gender Innovation Lab and Chief Economists Office

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