Cash transfers key to fighting poverty

Today, virtually every country in sub-Saharan Africa has some kind of cash transfer programme. These programmes are increasingly recognised as key to fighting poverty and hunger. Designed to reflect regional characteristics, they emphasise strong community participation and focus on economically and socially marginalised populations—including children, the elderly, families without earning power and people living with disabilities.

By providing predictable, direct transfers, the programmes protect vulnerable individuals and households from the worst impacts of poverty and help them build resilience. In fact, the success of cash transfers has contributed to a regional trend towards wider adoption of social-protection policies. Across sub-Saharan Africa, cash transfer initiatives are moving from donor-funded pilots to domestically funded national programmes.

In each country, the expansion of cash transfers has followed a unique course through a process of interplay among governments, civil society and international development partners. The region can now showcase rigorous, timely evidence demonstrating the impact of these transfers on the well-being of children, families and communities. The evidence points to positive impacts in areas such as school enrolment, health, food security, and agricultural investment. It also shows that cash transfers can generate multiplier effects bolstering local economies.

Against this backdrop, From Evidence to Action: The Story of Cash Transfers and Impact Evaluation in Sub-Saharan Africa advances the regional discourse on social protection. It documents the evidence base on cash transfers in the region and reflects on the development of social protection policies in eight countries across sub-Saharan Africa. The book’s contributors and editors present this analysis through the experience of the Transfer Project, a joint effort of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) and The UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), along with Save the Children, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and national governments and research institutions in each country.

The Transfer Project has participated in national evaluations of social cash transfer programmes in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The project serves as an ‘honest broker’ for governments and development partners, providing them with technical sup- port on the design and implementation of the evaluations. In the process, it helps to identify country-specific issues and priorities that inform national policy dialogues on social protection.


This book highlights two major research innovations characterising the Transfer Project’s impact evaluations, and both have clear policy implications at the country level. First, the evaluations generate critical evidence on the economic and productive impacts of cash transfers; and second, they assess the economic and social drivers of HIV risk among adolescents.

To measure economic and productive impacts, the Transfer Project drew upon the work of the From Protection to Production (PtoP) initiative. Through this partnership among FAO, Unicef, and national governments, the project was able to explore links among social protection, agriculture, and rural development. PtoP’s work helped evaluators assess the impact of cash transfers on household outcomes, individual livelihoods and local economies. The results spoke to the concerns of ministries of finance and planning about the relevance of social cash transfers for growth. Evidence generated through PtoP countered the argument that social cash transfers lead to dependency, and squarely positioned them as an important element of effective rural development strategy.

Another important initiative, led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UNICEF, examined the role of cash transfers in the transition to adulthood for young people in beneficiary households. Evaluators followed this line of study in response to high levels of HIV prevalence in the countries of East and Southern Africa, where the incidence of new infections is typically highest among young people, particularly young women. The results strengthened the case for social cash transfers as a means of addressing extreme poverty and inequity, which act as economic drivers of behaviours that increase the risk if HIV infection for many adolescents and young adults.

These pages also document the ways in which the Transfer Project has influenced the policy debate in each of the eight countries at hand. The project did not gather knowledge only to produce final impact analyses. Instead, it provided policy makers with critical information at key points in time, serving as a resource for the creation of government-owned learning agendas on social cash transfers. This innovative approach transcended impact evaluation and influenced wider social protection policies in each country.

Social cash transfer programmes are usually run by ministries of social development. But it is clear from the work of the Transfer Project that the implications of giving cash to poor and vulnerable households in sub-Saharan Africa go far beyond social development objectives. Cash transfers affect many other aspects of the lives of beneficiary families, including their livelihoods and the economic dynamics of their communities. The conclusions of this book further strengthen the case for moving from fragmented programmes to a systems approach to social protection, with the ability to provide comprehensive and multi-sector responses to the poorest households.

FAO and Unicef have long recognised the critical importance of working as strategic partners to strengthen the case for social protection. The added value of the Transfer Project is reflected in the commitment of national partners to pursue evidence-based policy making in this area. If governments, civil society, and development agencies can sustain that commitment, it will lead to real and sustainable change for future generations. We hope this book will strengthen their resolve to stay the course.

José Graziano da Silva is director-general, FAO, and Anthony Lake is executive director, Unicef. This article was otiginally published as the foreword to the book From Evidence to Action: The Story of Cash Transfers and Impact Evaluation in Sub-Saharan Africa, available from http://bit.ly/2eqXgNo

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