Dads and Development


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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

Tim Ogden
June 17, 2012


I talked to Esther about this in our interview for my forthcoming book. And despite all the citations of her work in South Africa on this issue, she doesn't buy the "invest in women" story, at least not fully.

You can find that portion of the interview here:…

And if you'll forgive the shameless plug for both of us, I'll point out that David and I talk more about this issue in our interview that will also appear in Experimental Conversations, hopefully quite soon.


David McKenzie
June 17, 2012

Thanks Tim for the link - I definitely recommend readers to check out his interview, as both Abhijit and Esther have interesting points to make on this issue.

David McKenzie
June 18, 2012

Thanks Nicola for this comment. Here is a link to the IPA study you refer to:…

They found that only 4.55% of women agreed to invite their husbands into their microfinance groups, which meant that there wasn't any power to see what the consequences of doing so was.

Fabrice Houdart
June 18, 2012

There are increasingly "non-traditional" families in the developing world that have two dads. At times the second dad is a transgender person who self-identifies as a woman but has a male ID. I discussed with such families in a recent visit to South Asia. Focusing exclusively on female head of household can end up being discriminatory against sexual minorities if we are not careful. These families are already severely discriminated against and as an institution we have the obligation to ensure we do not contribute to their stigmatization.

Nicola Pocock
June 19, 2012

Thanks for the link David. I was hoping for a moment to see a final study that did have enough power to discern whether including men is beneficial for women's empowerment.. perhaps a follow up survey or qualitative probing about why take up was so low among treatment participants would shed light on the questions the authors pose at the end.

Are women unwilling to increase their level of indebtedness because of fear of increased intra-household frictions or because they cannot cope with larger-scale
businesses due to their low levels of human capital relative to those of their male counterparts?

Are women fearful of suffering from free-riding from additional female friends or are already having to endure frictions among incumbent female members and therefore fearful of exacerbating such frictions by including new female borrowers?

Is the ongoing trend towards individual lending destroying social capital or on the contrary a device for preserving friendships, which under group lending methodologies might have been spoiled?

Nicola Pocock
June 18, 2012

David, a timely reminder that not all dads are out to spend household incomes on cigarettes and alcohol. Of course they're not.

Your post brought to mind a working paper by Armendariz and Roome (2008). This paper describes preliminary results of an IPA study in Mexico on gender and access to microcredit via solidarity groups (I haven't looked up the actual study). Control solidarity groups received no intervention. There were four treatment groups, 1) women can voluntarily invite partners/spouses to participate in solidarity group, 2) women can invite women-only friends to participate, 3) women can access larger loans but not invite anyone and 4) women can invite their partners/spouses under their control providing them high and low monetary incentives - "to better proxy women's marginal benefit from being financially independent."

Research questions:
"Did women borrowers decide to invite their male spouses to join, and if so, did their willingness to do so increase as they were provided with incentives? In what way did the inclusion or male spouses alter outcomes in terms of health, education, child labor, and bargaining power, for example?"…

You'd have to look up the study to know the outcomes, but I'd sincerely hope that questions Armendariz and Roome posed in 2008 would be asked in different contexts world over. I don't think that anyone remotely serious about gender and microfinance in this case equates women's only access to certain MFI products with empowerment and positive outcomes for household members every time. Obviously this is highly contextual and based on gendered, place specific norms that dictate appropriate behaviour re. spending, saving and investment. One interesting (anecdotal) aside from that paper - that a "gender bias" in microfinance can lead to intra-household conflicts that ultimately may affect health and education outcomes:

"We argue that there are potential dangers in excluding men from subsidized microfinance as this may lead to frictions between household heads, leading to lower quality and quantity of health and education provision within the overall household unit. At this stage the evidence for this position is anecdotal, deriving from Bangladesh and Africa. It suggests that there is a need to take into account the potential danger of excluding the men head of household from microfinance, as their exclusion can overburden women, and lower health and education outcomes."

Would also be interesting to know whether anyone is looking at this via Sen's (1987) gender and cooperative conflicts model.

Barbara Magnoni
June 19, 2012

Dr. McKenzie, there are some amazing caring dads around the world. Many of them sincerely do their best to put food on the table and support their families’ livelihoods. They don't drink, marry only once and have children with only one woman, thus optimizing the support they can give to one family unit. They drop their children off at school, and even help with household chores. They wake up in the middle of the night when their babies cry, and take them to the doctor when they are sick. They know the names of all of their children’s friends, and avoid leaving them alone with their “uncles”. These are the men that we want to see succeed. They live with great pressure to produce, earn, and not fail in their ability to provide a livelihood for their families. They face extreme pressure, since the women in their lives don't earn as much as they do, and sometime earn nothing at all. This seems hardly a fair shake for men. So I sympathetically hear your laments for their plight. However, most men marry, have children, and earn money out of choice. Additionally, many do so because the unpaid labor of a spouse will respond to the demands of these choices. Women, unfortunately, are lacking many of these choices because they lack the assets (including money, property, skills, education, and even political freedom) that can empower them to make these same choices. I will make some comments on your 3 points, primarily based on our own field work and research with microfinance institutions, microinsurance schemes, and their clients.

1) impact on child health is not the same as spending on health. I would be impressed to find any health impact in any program. Typically, health impact is extremely difficult to measure, especially over short time frames and even studies aimed at the impact of health insurance, rarely find any impact on health outcomes from being insured. I can imagine that this would be even harder to find from cash transfers that may be used for a much broader variety of needs. Thus, women may be spending more on visits to the doctor, or purchasing medications, but this may not translate into measurable short-term health outcomes.

2) I agree, in my experience men tend to re-invest more in their business than women, at least in microenerprises. A recent (forthcoming) study we did in Colombia in SMEs suggested otherwise. In this study, we asked both men and women how they reinvest profits and both preferred the business over family. I would caution against generalizing about consumption vs. investment and suggest that we have a lot more to learn here. I would offer a counterhypothesis: that men reinvest in their business, but that the benefits may not go to the households in their lifetime or even ever. These investments might build assets, making their businesses larger and more valuable, but the assets stay in the man’s name. This is great for economic growth, but just exacerbates the inequities between men and women in the household. More testing could be useful here.

3) I would say that I have also found in my work with various MFIs, that married couples pay their loans with more regularity and often have more successful businesses than those (men and women) who are divorced, unmarried and even co-habitating in many cases. However, how realistic is it to plan development interventions based on a cohesive family unit? While all of us would like to believe that family units are stable, they are often characterized by unequal power dynamics, which can be dangerous in their extremes. I spent a few hours with three women in rural Colombia about a week ago. They were a mother, Ill call her Maria, in her early 60s, her daughter-in-law, Ill call her Sofia (early 30s) and youngest daughter, I’ll call her Mariana (about 18). Maria has worked on her husband’s farm all of her life. She asked me why so many programs target only women, and I explained that women are often limited in their choices, opportunities. I was certain she knew of women in less than ideal situations that were unable to get away from those. I explained that when women can have their own income, they gain independence. They can choose to remain in their marriages and situations, but they have the choice to leave. She looked at me and nodded, “I don't need that. I am fine with my husband owning the land, taking out the loan, making the loan payments.” Maria does not “charge” for her work on the farm or in her home, and had no complaints. When we began speaking with Sofia, who sells from catalogues to her neighbors, sells arepas to a local prison, and works as a day laborer on the farm, I asked whether she thought it was better to have her own income and borrow money separately from her husband. At the risk of her mother-in-law’s disapproval, she nodded that having her separate income and loan was important to her, that she needed her independence. “You never know”, she said. Finally, I turned to the 18-year-old Mariana. Her mother had been complaining that after finishing high school she moved back home, unable to score enough points to apply for a higher education. She hadn’t found work either and was working on the farm as a day laborer in the meantime. “I want her to figure out what to do. I want her to be independent” said her mother. She boasted about another daughter who had completed college while she worked in the city and now had her own apartment. Interestingly, she was not wishing her own fate for her daughters, and was even ok with her daughter-in-law not wanting to rely only on male incomes.

Men do typically earn more, but that doesn't go far in helping to balance power in relationships. And many dads can attest that a balanced power relationship is ultimately a more fulfilling one, and a better one to model for their kids. I agree that men in the developing world need attention. I think that rather than focusing this attention on their economic growth, however, we should focus on their personal growth. They are too often ignored when health, financial education, and childrearing programs come to town. Additionally, programs don’t aim sufficiently at the fathers' wallets to fund family health spending, with the excuse that women are more likely to spend on health, but they are missing out on those who have more income to spare. Programs don't involve fathers enough in their children’s education, so only mothers buy into the need to spend money on school extras. The message that men get is that they are only as useful in their families as their income-earning ability, and this only perpetuates power inequities, frustration, violence and discontent.

A reader
June 19, 2012

There's also this paper from March 2012:
Preferences or Cultural Obligations: Reexamining the Source of Gender Differential in Resource Allocation and Child Well-Being…

Karishma Huda
June 21, 2012

Dear David,

Thank you for this thought provoking blog. I wanted to point out some work that I did with Anton Simanowitz on the CGAP-Ford Graduation program in Haiti. The study can be found here:…

As a part of our evaluation of this program, we looked both qualitatively and quantitatively at the factors that contribute to the success of program participants. We found that the majority of households that 'graduated' from the program (e.g.had diversified into several productive activities, had high level of savings, and took on microfinance loans) had male counterparts that supported them. In a context where there is high abandonment of women and many single mothers, the research showed that women's participation in this program often led husbands to wanting to 'come back home.' Because participants had their own income sources through the program, and greater self-confidence, participants often accepted men back into the household only if they played a more responsible role, and realised that it was economically advantageous to do so.

Another study that myself and some colleagues had done with Naila Kabeer on a similar initiative in India threw up similar, but slightly different, findings. That study can be found here:…

It showed that supportive men helped households to perform well in their enterprises and economically ascend. But, MALE IRRESPONSIBILITY (in this context, drinking and domestic violence) was the biggest drain upon households that didn't succeed.

So, in a nutshell, it's not enough to just have dads around...the dads need to be responsible, contributing members to the household economy!