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Conditionality in anti-poverty programmes, a subject of much-needed debate

24 Feb 2011

While conditionality of social welfare programmes is a longstanding albeit contested issue in social policy debates, its appearance in anti-poverty measures in developing countries is relatively new. The February issue of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice features a themed section on conditionality and social security in a global context co-edited by Oxford reseacher Fran Bennett, UNRISD Research Coordinator Katja Hujo and former UNRISD Research Analyst Elena Gaia.

In the social policy context, conditionality refers to granting benefits, most often cash transfers but also subsidized social services, on the condition that the beneficiary or the household behaves in a prescribed way, as Standing outlines in the volume. In developed welfare states, conditionalities are usually part of unemployment benefits or health insurance policies. In developing countries, cash transfers require households to send their children to school and to comply with health check-ups for children and pregnant women.

The journal’s themed section offers three perspectives on the controversial topic of conditionality in social assistance programs in the developing world, in particular the debate on conditional cash transfers (CCTs). Francie Lund, from the University of Kwazulu-Natal, provides a case study of South Africa’s model child grant programme, which supports children’s health and education. Armando Barrientos, of the University of Manchester’s Brooks World Poverty Institute, elaborates on the rationale behind attaching conditions to social programmes in low- and middle-income countries using evidence from programmes such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia. Guy Standing, Professor at the University of Bath, explores the moral assumptions underpinning conditionality in a political opinion piece. These contributions illustrate the variety of views and approaches in the informed discussion of CCTs against the backdrop of growing political support.

The aim of programmes which supplement the income of families below the poverty line is to break the intergenerational poverty cycle through investing in children’s health and education. Governments, electorates and donor agencies support the cash transfers based on the premise that they lead to a more productive workforce and improved well-being. Yet it is questionable whether the conditionality attached to these initiatives, such as mandatory health examinations, is necessary and sufficient for the programmes’ positive impact. In addition, the potential negative repercussions of obligatory conditions deserve consideration, namely a penalization of children if parents do not comply, or incentives for corruption.

Katja Hujo points out that the diversity of opinion on conditionality demonstrates the need for an ongoing debate. “We cannot simply take for granted that conditions are useful,” Hujo said. “More research is needed on the effects conditions have on poverty, inequality and other dimensions of social development. We also need more debate on the normative questions associated with behavioural conditions.” Judging from the popularity of CCTs in political circles, conditionality is likely to be integrated into future poverty reduction measures, further underlining the need to evaluate its effectiveness.

The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, formerly known as Benefits, features research, policy and practice on poverty and social exclusion.