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Practise what you preach? How cash transfers remove power from people in poverty

by Roeland Hemsteede

Cash transfer programmes that provide a small but meaningful amount of money to poor and vulnerable households on a regular basis have become an increasingly important policy tool in many countries in the Global South. A common rationale for the provision of such transfers is that it empowers its beneficiaries. However, when paying a closer look at such programmes, reality is not quite so straightforward.

When doing fieldwork in Malawi and Lesotho, I saw first-hand how views on who deserves to benefit from programme support diverges between community members and policy makers, and how this divergence contributes to power previously vested in communities being reclaimed by policy makers. This is not to deny that cash transfers can empower beneficiaries. Still, it is worth exploring the perhaps unintended consequences of the intricacies of implementation of such transfers and how communities’ views are (not) taken into account.

Cash transfer programmes are often guided by overarching social protection strategies. In both Lesotho and Malawi, these strategies share the same guiding principle, namely that “beneficiary preferences [are] prioritised”.

A major issue pertains to deciding who should be receiving support and how much.

Poverty in both Lesotho and Malawi is widespread. In many communities there is the sense that “we are all poor here“. This complicates the process of deciding and identifying who is in need of support, or ‘targeting’. A common way to address this challenge is through community-based targeting. This involves community members – together as a group – deciding who in their community should be receiving support. The idea is that communities know best which members are vulnerable and in need of support. However, as it turns out, the outcome of such processes may not be in line with what policy makers would like to see.

A key finding of our research showed that community members prefer support to be spread across as many people as possible, as opposed to multiple types of support being directed at a small group of ‘eligible’ beneficiaries. By contract, policy makers prefer to establish who is poorest and most vulnerably and to provide them with various forms of cash transfers and other services.

These diverging views have real implications. In Malawi, the community redistributed cash transfers after they had been delivered. In Lesotho, participants in our research suggested that beneficiaries from the Child Grants Programme should ‘rotate’ to ensure everyone in need could benefit. In both Lesotho and Malawi, community-based-targeting resulted in existing cash transfer beneficiaries being excluded when humanitarian cash transfers were implemented.

Of course, community-based-targeting is not without its flaws. The poorest and most vulnerable might be excluded as a result of local power relations, something we also noticed in Lesotho and Malawi. Whether or not targeting is ‘perfect’, ‘good enough’ or ‘bad’ however is not the point of this post. Important here is that as decision-making power is handed over to the community, local power relations and ideas may shape the implementation of cash transfers in ways that go against the vision of policy makers.

Yet policy makers seek to control who receives what support. They believe it is best to provide one household with both social and humanitarian cash transfers. They believe that stacking interventions offers the best prospects for households to graduate from poverty. The conviction that policy makers hold the solution leads to redesigned systems that redirect power away from communities.

In both Lesotho and Malawi, targeting procedures have moved away from community-based mechanisms to more technical methods based on survey data. Communities now validate beneficiaries instead of identifying them. Previously, communities came up with an initial list of beneficiaries for verification be administrators. Now, administrators present them with a computer-generated list and say “based on the information we have, we got these results. Are you in agreement?”. Theoretically, this might prevent capture by local elites, but it also reduces the ability of communities to apply their own criteria.

The lack of community engagement is becoming even more problematic as social protection in Lesotho and Malawi shifts towards a ‘cash plus model’ that aims to provide multiple forms of support to a small group of people. Malawi’s current strategy, for example, aims to provide the beneficiaries of its Social Cash Transfer Programme “with additional support to build resilient livelihoods tailored to their needs and capacities”. Non-beneficiaries, who are only marginally better off, consequently risk losing out against the express desire of communities. Despite the lofty guiding principle that community preferences are prioritised, it appears that policy makers perceive community participation more as an obstacle than an opportunity to creating social protection systems based on the preferences of the poor.

Roeland Hemsteede is a researcher interested in the intersection between power, poverty, and policy. He recently completed his PhD, which focused on how power relations at the (inter)national level are implicated in designing and implementing cash transfers in Lesotho and Malawi. Currently, he is engaged with resilience research in Nepal. You can reach him on:

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