It is difficult to imagine how R280 can improve the life chances of a child, let alone a country, writes George Laryea-Adjei.
It buys half a tank of petrol, or dinner for two at a chain restaurant. But R280 is also the sum of the monthly child support grant and it is proving to be one of South Africa’s single best investments in its future.
This has emerged from a major three-year study, South Africa’s Child Support Grant Impact Assessment, commissioned by the national department of social development, the South African Social Security Agency and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
It was conducted by the Economic Policy Research Institute with the Institute for Development Studies of the University of Sussex, the International Food Policy Research Institute, Oxford Policy Management, Reform Development Consulting and Take Note Trading.
The study finds that the impact of the grant, which is means tested but, unlike those in many developing countries, not conditional on participation in specific programmes, exceeds expectations. Not only is South Africa right to give R280 a month to the caregivers of 10.8-million children, it should also waste no time in extending the grant to at least two million more.
The grant reduces poverty significantly, the study says. It leads to girls and boys eating better and being healthier. Those who receive the grant from birth have better marks and stay in school longer. Socially, the grant is a silent weapon against drugs, alcohol abuse and crime. It undermines the “sugar daddy” phenomenon that leads teenagers to have transactional sex and being exposed to pregnancy or HIV.
Buoyed by the grant
Most importantly, the study has identified what can only be described as a generation of boys and girls who are buoyed by the grant and thus stop the pernicious cycle of poverty from being passed down through generations.
The grant even has selling points for hardened free marketeers: it brings families into the consumer economy and leads rural mothers to open their first bank accounts.
The study, looking at qualitative and quantitative effects, is one of the most thorough to have been carried out in a developing country.
Through household surveys it records children’s maths results and even their vocabulary. Caregivers, children, teenagers and social workers are all given a voice. Not only does it reveal the positive impact of the grant, it also provides information about how disbursement can be improved. The study addresses how administrative bottlenecks can be reduced and identifies the key areas in which information and access need to be improved.
In the past 14 years, fears of abuse have been far outweighed by the clear poverty-reduction benefits of the grant. Research shows that caregivers who are entrusted with the grant — mostly women — are investing it in good nutrition, schooling, care and other essentials. And in the context of widespread poverty and unemployment, the grant often benefits the entire household. As a result, it has been extended to children under 18, the paperwork has been simplified and speeded up and it has become easier to qualify.
The grant is a reflection of a rights-based approach to development. Its impact compares favourably with the often cited conditional schemes in countries such as Mexico or Brazil. For the price of half a tank of petrol per child per month, South Africa is making strides to beat poverty.
The next logical step must be to extend the grant to families who cannot produce the ID documents, employers’ letters and birth certificates now required. Doing so will bring about two million more children under the wing of a grant that is a crucial lifeline.
George Laryea-Adjei is chief of social policy and advocacy for Unicef South Africa