Published on Development Impact

Dads and Development

This page in:

It’s Father’s Day here in America (although not in much of the rest of the World, see this cool interactive map). As a result, the newspapers are full of articles about the importance of Dads, lamenting the high numbers of poor kids who grow up without fathers and highlighting the tremendous contributions fathers make to the lives of their children.

This is in strong contrast to the ways Dads are often depicted in the economic development literature. I’ve just finished reviewing yet another report that  sees as good for development policies that reallocate money within the household from Dads to Mums, claiming that this will result in more money getting invested in children’s health and education, and less wasted on booze.

This view doesn’t come from nowhere. Indeed influential studies by Duncan Thomas in Brazil (cited 1292 times) and Esther Duflo in South Africa (cited 618 times), among others, have shown differences in spending and child anthropometrics are associated with differences in who in the household receives money, with more immediate impacts on children when mothers or grandmothers received money than when fathers or grandfathers did. So case closed?

Here’s three reasons why we should reconsider the role of Dads:

1.       New evidence which randomizes whether conditional cash transfers were given to Dads or Mums in Burkina Faso, and finds no differential impact on child health. What Dads do with money is likely to vary with context and what the alternative uses for this funding are.

2.       We might be undervaluing or not measuring well what Dads do spend money on. In randomized experiments in Ghana and Sri Lanka, when we gave unrestricted cash grants to men and women, we find men invest more in their businesses, which then show high returns to capital and result in increases in household income. So the money mothers might spend on their kids in the short-term might be crowding out in some cases higher household incomes and resources in the longer terms, if it means giving up high return business investments. That is, Dads don’t just spend any spare money on alcohol and cigarettes, but expenditure-based surveys might miss the investments they are making with this money.

3.       All the focus on intrahousehold allocation neglects total household income. Many of these studies either focus on an exogenous transfer, or try and hold total household resources fixed and see the associations with the share going to women. But total household income is likely to be much higher when kids have both parents than when they have one, and in many countries fathers incomes typically comprise the largest shares of household budgets. So by all means let’s try policies that raise the incomes of both mothers and fathers, but not ignore the role fathers play in raising the total resources available to the household.

Finally, let’s note that the evidence base is much smaller, less geographically varied, and less conclusive than we would like on this, as is the scope of proven policy initiatives. A recent DFID funded systematic review carried out by RAND looking at the impact of economic resource transfers to women versus men screened 5,774 studies but came up with only 15 studies that had a rigorous comparison (and only one (our Sri Lankan study) of which used evidence from a randomized experiment - the Burkina Faso study wasn’t out at the time the review was written). It concludes “Targeting cash transfers towards women through conditional cash transfer programs and pensions appears to improve child nutrition and health; however, it is not yet clear that such interventions consistently lead to any other systematic pattern of economic choices, let alone whether they ultimately lead to benefits for the household as a whole more than if the transfer were targeted to men”, and also notes that “It cannot be assumed that any transfer to a woman will lead to better outcomes for family well-being than the same transfer to a man…the impacts by gender of recipient of other transfers like pensions, as well as grants and micro-credit, which are types of interventions that focus on income generation, are more ambiguous”.

So Dads of the developing world, I raise a glass (unfunded by grants or transfers of course!) to you this Father’s Day, and hope that the important work on trying to raise the incomes and status of women around the world doesn’t continue to come in part by neglecting the important role you play.


David McKenzie

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000