Approximately 767 million people live on less than $1.90 a day.1 Across the world, the extreme poor generally depend on insecure and fragile livelihoods, and their income is frequently irregular or seasonal, putting them and their families at risk of hunger. Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) works with academics from top research institutions to discover sustainable ways to lift these households out of extreme poverty and to support the scale-up of effective programs. In recent years, IPA has helped propel breakthrough findings—particularly on cash transfers and the “big-push” strategy known as the Graduation approach—into large-scale programs, reaching tens of millions of people. We are now testing variations of the Graduation approach in Ghana, Uganda, and the Sahel to identify what drives the impacts and how to make it more cost-effective.
1 http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview. Accessed November 7, 2016.
Three hundred million of the world’s rural poor suffer from seasonal income insecurity, which often occurs between planting and harvest when the demand for agricultural labor falls and the price of food rises. Those who undergo a lean season typically miss meals for a two- to three-month period. This is especially problematic for pregnant women and young children since poor nutrition for even a short time can limit long-term cognitive and physical development. Seasonal hunger and deprivation is perhaps the biggest challenge to the reduction of global poverty that has remained largely under the radar.
Members of some families in poor rural areas migrate to urban areas for work to cope with seasonal deprivation. In Bangladesh, however, researchers observed that many vulnerable households, who could potentially reap large benefits from temporary migration, didn’t send anyone away to work, thereby risking hunger. Why weren’t more people migrating? Would these households improve food security if they were to send a migrant to these areas during the lean season? More broadly, why were so many people sticking around in relatively unproductive rural areas, in the face of persistent gaps in wages and productivity between urban and rural areas? Was this akin to the proverbial $100 bills being left on the sidewalk?
A research team from Yale University, the London School of Economics, the University of Sydney, and Innovations for Poverty Action investigated these questions in Northern Bangladesh during 2008-2011, testing whether providing information or small financial incentives, worth about the cost of a bus ticket, increased migration and in turn, improved household welfare. They found that households offered either a grant or loan to migrate were substantially more likely to send someone to work outside the village during the lean season, and those families increased caloric intake relative to those not offered the incentives. Many of those households chose to re-migrate on their own a year later. A replication and expansion of the study during 2014-2016 not only confirmed these findings, it also showed that larger scale emigration increases wages and work hours in the village of origin, indirectly benefiting other residents who stay back.
Read about Evidence Action's scale-up of the program here.
Targeted interventions that sustainably improve the lives of the poor will be a critical component in eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. The poorest households tend to be physically and socially isolated and face disadvantages across multiple dimensions, which makes moving out of extreme poverty challenging and costly. This paper compares the cost-effectiveness of three strands of anti-poverty social protection interventions by reviewing 30 livelihood development programs, 11 lump-sum unconditional cash transfers, and seven graduation programs. All the selected graduation initiatives focused on the extreme poor, while the livelihood development and cash transfer programs targeted a broader set of beneficiaries. Impacts on annual household consumption (or on income when consumption data were not available) per dollar spent were used to benchmark cost-effectiveness across programs. Among all 48 programs reviewed, lump-sum cash transfers were found to have the highest benefit-cost ratio, though there are very few lump-sum cash transfer programs that serve the extreme poor or measure long-term impacts. Livelihood programs that targeted the extreme poor had much lower benefit-cost ratios. Graduation programs are more cost-effective than the livelihood programs that targeted the extreme poor and measured long-term impacts (i.e., at least one year after end of interventions). More evidence is needed, especially on long-term impacts of lump-sum cash transfers to the extreme poor, to make better comparisons among the three types of programs for sustainable reduction of extreme poverty.
Public expenditures on non-contributory pensions are equivalent to at least 1 percent of GDP in several countries in Latin America and is expected to increase. We explore the effect of non- contributory pensions on the well-being of the beneficiary population by studying the Pension 65 program in Peru, which uses a poverty eligibility threshold. We find that the program reduced the average score of beneficiaries on the Geriatric Depression Scale by nine percent and reduced the proportion of older adults doing paid work by four percentage points. Moreover, households with a beneficiary increased their level of consumption by 40 percent. All these effects are consistent with the findings of Galiani, Gertler and Bando (2016) in their study on a non-contributory pension scheme in Mexico. Thus, we conclude that the effects of non-contributory pensions on well-being in rural Mexico can be largely generalized to Peru.
This paper provides empirical evidence regarding the causal effects that upgrading slum dwellings has on the living conditions of the extremely poor. In particular, we study the impact of providing better houses in situ to slum dwellers in El Salvador, Mexico and Uruguay. We experimentally evaluate the impact of a housing project run by the NGO TECHO (“roof”), which provides basic pre-fabricated houses to members of extremely poor population groups in Latin America. The main objective of the program is to improve household well-being. Our findings show that better houses have a positive effect on overall housing conditions and general well-being: the members of treated households are happier with their quality of life. In two countries, we also document improvements in children’s health; in El Salvador, slum dwellers who have received the TECHO houses also feel that they are safer. We do not find this result, however, in the other two experimental samples. There are no other noticeable robust effects in relation to the possession of durable goods or labor outcomes. Our results are robust in terms of both their internal and external validity because they are derived from similar experiments in three different Latin American countries.
We show that extremely poor, war-affected women in northern Uganda have high returns to a package of $150 cash, five days of business skills training, and ongoing supervision. Sixteen months after grants, participants doubled their microenterprise ownership and incomes, mainly from petty trading. We also show these ultrapoor have too little social capital, but that group bonds, informal insurance, and cooperative activities could be induced and had positive returns. When the control group received cash and training 20 months later, we varied supervision, which represented half of the program costs. A year later, supervision increased business survival but not consumption.
Background. By 2009, two decades of war and widespread displacement left the majority of the population of Northern Uganda impoverished. Methods. This study used a cluster-randomized design to test the hypothesis that a poverty alleviation program would improve economic security and reduce symptoms of depression in a sample of mostly young women. Roughly 120 villages in Northern Uganda were invited to participate. Community committees were asked to identify the most vulnerable women (and some men) to participate. The implementing agency screened all proposed participants, and a total of 1800 were enrolled. Following a baseline survey, villages were randomized to a treatment or wait-list control group. Participants in treatment villages received training, start-up capital, and follow-up support. Participants, implementers, and data collectors were not blinded to treatment status. Results. Villages were randomized to the treatment group (60 villages with 896 participants) or the wait-list control group (60 villages with 904 participants) with an allocation ration of 1:1. All clusters participated in the intervention and were included in the analysis. The intent-to-treat analysis included 860 treatment participants and 866 control participants (4.1% attrition). Sixteen months after the program, monthly cash earnings doubled from UGX 22 523 to 51 124, non-household and non-farm businesses doubled, and cash savings roughly quadrupled. There was no measurable effect on a locally derived measure of symptoms of depression. Conclusions. Despite finding large increases in business, income, and savings among the treatment group, we do not find support for an indirect effect of poverty alleviation on symptoms of depression.
Labor-intensive public works programs are important social protection tools in low- income settings, intended to supplement the income of poor households and improve public infrastructure. In this evaluation of the Malawi Social Action Fund, an at- scale, government-operated program, across- and within-village randomization is used to estimate effects on food security and use of fertilizer. There is no evidence that the program improves food security, and suggestive evidence of negative spillovers to untreated households. These disappointing results hold even under modifications to the design of the program to offer work during the lean rather than harvest season or increase the frequency of payments.
For policy purposes, it is important to understand the relative efficacy of various methods to target the poor. Recently, participatory methods have received particular attention. We examine the effectiveness of a hybrid two-step process that combines a participatory wealth ranking and a verification household survey, relative to two proxy means tests (the Progress out of Poverty Index and a housing index), in Honduras and Peru. The methods we examine perform similarly by various metrics. They all identify most accurately the poorest and the wealthiest households but perform with mixed results among households in the middle of the distribution. Ultimately, given similar performance, the analysis suggests that costs should be the driving consideration in choosing across methods.
A multifaceted livelihood program that provided ultra-poor households with a productive asset, training, regular coaching, access to savings, and consumption support led to large and lasting impacts on their standard of living across a diverse set of contexts and implementing partners.
Investing in women is said to be a key to development. In this view, providing education, a cow, or the ingredients for a business will result in great things: increases in income, empowerment, social inclusion, and improved mental health. In this study, IPA researchers studied whether the most vulnerable women could start and sustain small businesses. They evaluated a program by AVSI Uganda, the Women’s INcome Generating Support (WINGS) program. WINGS offered extremely poor people basic business skills training, ongoing mentorship, and cash grants with a purchasing power of $375. The message: the poorest women have high returns to cash, training and supervision. Not only can cash-centered programs help the poorest start and sustain microenterprises, but they do so cost-effectively. Moving ahead, there are ways to improve cost-effectiveness, and programs should note that higher incomes alone may not address women’s social and personal challenges.
We present results from six randomized control trials of an integrated approach to improve livelihoods among the very poor. The approach combines the transfer of a productive asset with consumption support, training, and coaching plus savings encouragement and health education and/or services. Results from the implementation of the same basic program, adapted to a wide variety of geographic and institutional contexts and with multiple implementing partners, show statistically significant cost-effective impacts on consumption (fueled mostly by increases in self-employment income) and psychosocial status of the targeted households. The impact on the poor households lasted at least a year after all implementation ended. It is possible to make sustainable improvements in the economic status of the poor with a relatively short-term intervention.
Cash transfers directed to female caregivers in Nicaragua led to gains in child-development outcomes that persisted beyond the duration of the program.
Early childhood is a critical period for investment in human development, the circumstances of which can have lifelong impacts. Physical, cognitive, or behavioral delays in development can result in long-term negative effects on health, educational attainment, labor-market outcomes, and other indicators of well-being.
Conditional cash transfer (cct) programs are one way to help parents who lack resources invest more in their children. These programs provide families with cash grants as long as they undertake certain activities such as having their children attend regular health check-ups. While there is a large body of evidence on the short-term impacts of ccts on children’s development, there is less evidence on their long-term impacts. To better understand the effects of ccts later in life, researchers evaluated two distinct cct programs in Nicaragua.
In the first evaluation, researchers Tania Barham (University of Colorado Boulder), J-PAL affiliate Karen Macours (Paris School of Economics), and John A. Maluccio (Middlebury College), examined the long-term impacts of ccts on child development. In this study, they tested whether there is a critical window of time (the first 1,000 days from in utero to age two) for cognitive and physical development by taking advantage of the random assignment of households to receive cash transfers in either an “early” or “late" treatment group. In the second evaluation, Karen Macours, Norbert Schady (Inter-American Development Bank), and Renos Vakis (World Bank) studied a cct program with three variations to understand the channels through which different program components impacted early childhood development.
Compared to the number of randomized evaluations that have been conducted on cash transfers in Latin America, evaluations on cash grant interventions in African settings are few. However, the recent studies that have been conducted in Africa help to answer several key questions about cash grants.
In many developing countries, women frequently leave school, marry, and start having children at a young age. In India, nearly half of women now in their early twenties were married before the age of eighteen. Girls tend to drop out of school earlier than boys, and women are far less likely to work for pay or work outside of the home. These outcomes indicate low social and economic progress of women and may have consequences for poverty and well-being.
The availability of employment opportunities for women may play a role in influencing these outcomes. Parents may not invest as much in their daughters’ education as their sons’ if they anticipate fewer employment opportunities for educated women than men. Would parents change how they invest in their daughters and would young women’s aspirations change, if they learned that new, better job opportunities are available? When people learn about well-paying jobs for women, can this change decisions about young women continuing their education, entering the labor market, and delaying getting married and having children?
J-PAL affiliate Robert Jensen (University of California, Los Angeles) conducted a randomized evaluation in rural India to test the impact of spreading awareness about jobs for educated young women in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, and subsequently helping qualified women get BPO jobs by offering free recruiting services. The purpose of the evaluation was to test whether increased employment opportunities for women can affect lifecycle work and family transitions, rather than whether recruiting services as a policy instrument (which do not actually create jobs) can help address these outcomes.