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cash transfers for early childhood development in SSA

July 13, 2012

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In a webinar organised by UNICEF yesterday, Marito Garcia and Charity Moore from the World Bank called for cash transfers in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to focus their attention on early childhood as it presents the stage in life, and childhood, where returns to investment are largest. They make their case, and by doing so provide an overview of cash transfer schemes in SSA since 2000 in their book: The Cash Dividend: The Rise of Cash Transfers Programs in Sub-Saharan Africa, published by World Bank.

The reference to early childhood as a ‘unique window of opportunity’ and a ‘game-changer’ are certainly not new; there is widespread evidence that promoting early childhood development (ECD) has strong positive effects and that a denial of basic needs in early age has far-reaching adverse impacts into adulthood and across generations. The call for cash transfers to focus on those aged 0 to 6 thus hardly seems to be one to contend, particularly in light of development and social protection debates that increasingly focus on ways to get the biggest bang for one’s buck.

Garcia and Moore provided fairly little information however as to what cash transfer programmes could or should look like in a SSA context to make them focus on early childhood or ECD. The applaud SSA’s flexible approach to cash transfer programmes by relying heavily on community-based targeting and using soft rather than hard conditionality. At the same time, they make multiple references to Latin America where conditional cash transfers focusing on ECD or maternal health have had great positive impacts. In fact, they make a rather curious case in favour of conditional cash transfers as opposed to unconditional cash transfers based on two studies – one involving adolescent girls in Zomba, Malawi (Baird et al. 2011) and a more recent study on ECD in Nicaragua (Macours et al. 2011). Whilst the first study shows that conditionality indeed leads to greater positive effects with respect to schooling outcomes, the second study says nothing in particular about the effect of conditionality but finds that giving more money in and of itself does not lead to greater impact on ECD outcomes.

Of course this is all based on information provided during a brief presentation and the book may make a stronger case. In any case, the book is likely to serve as a useful reference beyond the case of cash transfers for ECD. The authors provide an interesting overview of the evolution of cash transfers in SSA in the last decade, drawing comparisons between four different clusters of countries in terms of coverage, types of programmes and financing structures. In a rapidly developing policy area such a social protection, such a comprehensive overview is a welcome addition to the reference base.

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