Archive for the ‘Child poverty’ Category

The time for making poverty history is now

12 May, 2010

In rich countries a handful of dollars does not go very far, indeed most people in the UK wouldn’t think twice about spending this on a cup of coffee.  But one in five people in the world today has no choice but to survive on less than US$2 a day, and 1.5 billion people struggle to live on less than US$1. The vast majority of those affected are children, each an individual story of unfulfilled hope and potential.

Few would dispute that ‘a world free from poverty’ is the overwhelming challenge of the 21st century. The crucial issue is how to achieve this. In Just Give Money to the Poor:  The Development Revolution from the Global South (Kumarian Press, 2010), Hanlon, Barrientos and Hulme discuss a wave of new thinking on development that is sweeping across the South. Instead of relying on a large and expensive aid industry to find ways to ‘help the poor’, it is better to transfer money and resources directly to the households in poverty so that they are able to find effective the most effective ways to escape from poverty.

This is the premise behind social transfer programmes such as Mexico’s Oportunidades, Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, South Africa’s Child Support Grant, and India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. They all provide regular transfers of money to households in poverty with the aim of improving their nutrition, making sure children go to school, and ensuring that expectant mothers have regular check-ups.

This does not rule out the need for investment in economic growth and basic services. Small transfers to very poor households help provide access to new economic opportunities and vital health and education services. Without such transfers, the costs of transport, school uniforms, medicines, and job search could well be prohibitive.

Social transfer programmes do not throw money from helicopters. They carefully select and monitor recipients, ensure they are well informed about objectives, and track outcomes. In Latin America, transfers are paid directly to mothers thus strengthening their voice within the household. The responsibilities of the government and the households are carefully discussed at registration.

Despite attempts by the aid industry to take credit for these initiatives, social transfer programmes are most often national responses to local problems. Brazil’s Bolsa Familia began as a municipal programme in Campinas in 1994/5 and is built on domestic learning and experience of what works to reduce poverty. India’s National Employment Guarantee Scheme, which guarantees one hundred days labour on demand to unemployed rural heads of household, also builds on a careful assessment of similar programmes in Maharashtra and elsewhere.  . Social transfer programmes have high set up costs and for this reason international assistance is important in low income countries. Nonetheless, sustainability and legitimacy requires domestic political support and finance in the medium term. Giving money to households in poverty is a ‘Southern project’, as the considerable diversity of programmes around the developing world demonstrates.

Important challenges remain, especially in low income countries lacking the capacity to design, deliver, and finance social transfer programmes. In many countries their institutionalisation is precarious. The existing social transfer programmes need to be seen as a first stage in the development of  strong and stable institutions,  able to protect poor and vulnerable populations in the South from the volatility and crisis of the global economy on. Acknowledging these challenges, the book makes the important point that knowledge on how to eradicate poverty is already freely available if only we care to learn from the South.

Armando Barrientos – Professor and Research Director, Brooks World Poverty Institute

Talk the talk – but not walk the walk

1 December, 2008

That’s the way Larry Elliott in The Guardian sums up the donors lack of urgency in meeting the MDGs. Commenting on the just released UNESCO Education for All report, he writes:

“… donor countries can talk the talk but not walk the walk. According to the Unesco study, the aid required for even the most basic primary education provision in poor countries is US$11 bn (£7.2bn) a year. In 2006, spending amounted to around $4bn, leaving a funding gap of $7bn. To put that figure into context, it is around 10% of what Britain spent this autumn recapitalising the banking system”.

Maybe they will walk the walk at the UN Financing for Development summit now underway in Doha. But I wouldn’t hold your breath. “When financial systems fail, the consequences are highly visible and governments act,” concluded UNESCO’s Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. He added “When education systems fail the consequences are less visible, but no less real”.

I would add that education is the only investment you can be sure of getting at least some return on – provided it’s of good quality and children complete a minimum of 4 years primary education. Well-educated people earn more in the labour market, and find it easier to absorb new technologies and methods when they run micro-enterprises and farms. Education is a means to break the inter-generational transmission of chronic poverty (see this CPRC study for Bangladesh).

And even if it didn’t raise income much – which might be the case in economies that are growing only slowly – it certainly improves health status, especially of children, when mothers are educated. Educated mothers are 50% more likely to immunize their children than mothers with no schooling (go here). Gender inequality in education has high costs for both the family and society (see this IFPRI study).

So the chronic underfunding of education reminds me of that old quotation: if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Keynes is Back. But What to Do, Darling?

24 November, 2008

Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling is praising Keynes – along with just about everyone else. He’s boosted public spending (go here). The present focus on fiscal policy reflects the fear of a ‘liquidity trap’ – which Keynes first identified in the 1930s. The Bank of England is set to cut interest rates further, but this might not encourage banks to lend. So monetary policy alone can’t do the trick (it is said). Hence public spending. And now tax cuts.

Today we hear the Chancellor’s plans (at 3.30 pm: go here). The government’s spin machine was busy over the weekend so a VAT reduction will hardly come as a surprise. The FT reckons it will be a £12.5 bn package:

“At the heart of the stimulus package is an expected “temporary” cut in the VAT rate from 17.5 to 15 per cent, the lowest standard rate allowed in the EU. Food, children’s clothing and some other items have always been zero-rated in Britain”.

Will a VAT cut work? Canada cut its sales tax at the beginning of 2008, but this had modest effects on total spending, according to the ‘Undercover Economist’, Tim Harford interviewed on the BBC Today programme this morning. For a critique of the Canadian tax cuts from a poverty perspective see GrowingGap. Canadian readers: send us your views.

To cut taxes now, taxes have to rise later. Economists describe this as borrowing from ourselves. Spending won’t rise if we fully anticipate the future tax increase. Or at least that’s what some macro-economists say (see Robert Barro). It’s called Ricardian Equivalence (drop that into your next pub conversation on the economic crisis: sure to impress). Economist readers: please up-date us on whether Barro is right.

Will businesses cut prices following a VAT reduction? They are slashing prices in any case, in advance of Xmas – a last ditch hope that the sales can carry them through the new year. Buyers stormed Marks & Spencers last week, following a 20% price cut. So we might all now afford fresh underwear. But will stores cut prices further, or take some of the VAT cut to rebuild their margins?

Ann Pettifor of the New Economics Foundation interviewed on the BBC yesterday was skeptical about tax cuts (Ann was one of the first people to predict this crisis). She believes that people will instead save the VAT cut (i.e. you will still buy the same basket of goods, but now the basket will be cheaper and you won’t add any more items. Your money is then deposited in one of Britain’s hopeless banks or under your mattress). Ann points out that if the money is spent then a lot will go on foreign imports (true, but I don’t think this is necessarily as bad as is often believed. The Americans need help too. I’ll do my bit by buying a new Apple Mac).

Other ideas I have come across: delay VAT payments by small businesses for six months. Many small businesses are penalized by the larger firms not paying their suppliers on time (a zero-cost way for the latter to fund themselves). Peter Mandelson promised a crack down, but doesn’t seem to have achieved much yet. In the recession of the early 1990s, small business failures were running at a 1,000 a week. So maybe government could help with a delay in VAT payments. Housebuilders want a continuation of the present holiday on stamp duty to get the housing market re-started. Readers might like to comment on the merits of each.

But there are two ideas from the Get Fair campaign that I really like.

First, immediately invest £4bn in measures to halve child poverty by 2010. Child poverty costs at least £25 billion each year in losses to the Exchequer and in reduced GDP, according to research from the Joseph Rowntree foundation. So spending tax revenue on eliminating child poverty now would actually save public money in the future. Surely a good idea.

Second, Get Fair says improve the take-up of existing benefits: they estimate that this would help 500,000 pensioners out of poverty. Here in the UK we have just had Remembrance Sunday, a day on which we remember those who gave their lives to defend Britain – especially in the Two World Wars. A 20-year old in 1940, is now 88. Helping our pensioners now, especially those in poverty (2.5 million of them) will be one of our last chances to thank their generation.

So, over to you Darling.

A Fun Way to Harness the Energy of Children to Deliver Clean Water

12 November, 2008

In the discussion of my recent post about bottled water I mentioned that sales of bottled water at Manchester University support water pumps in Africa. Specifically, Playpump, a wonderful invention from South Africa.

As children spin on a roundabout, clean water is pumped from underground into storage tanks. The pumps cost about US$9,500 to install. They are much faster and pump at a more reliable rate than hand-driven pumps, and can supply up to 1,400 litres of water an hour.

Better water infrastructure in Africa not only reduces the incidence of the main water-borne illnesses, but also reduces the amount of time that communities spend collecting water from (often dirty) ponds and rivers. Since water collection is often an activity for girls, requiring them to walk many hours when water is inaccessible, it provides more time for them – including more time in school. More information on Playpump can be found here.

Get Fair on UK Poverty

19 October, 2008

The UK has got a lot richer over the last twenty years – we are the world’s fifth richest country – but not fairer. Inequality has risen, and 12.8 million Brits live in poverty (30% of children, and 17% of older folk). That’s the message of Get Fair – a national campaign calling for an end to poverty in the UK by 2020.

The coalition now consists of more than 50 organizations. They work on poverty right across society, including among children, older people, refugees, and the disabled. Get Fair includes housing groups, as well as faith and community groups.

Two at least of their recommendations could help Britain dig itself out the recession, namely invest £4bn measures to halve child poverty by 2010 and improve the take-up of existing benefits (they estimate that this would help 500,000 pensioners out of poverty).

On 4 October, Britain’s biggest ever event to end child poverty was held in Trafalgar Square, London, organized by End Child Poverty. And Poverty Action Week takes place 31 January to 8 February 2009, organized by Church Action on Poverty.

The Habitual Food of the Working Man Varies According to his Wages

1 October, 2008

So wrote Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England based on his investigations into poverty in Manchester. The link between poverty and bad nutrition still resonates in Britain as Jamie Oliver’s new TV series Jamie’s Ministry of Food shows. Writing in today’s Guardian, Felicity Lawrence cites work by Tim Lobstein of the International Association for the Study of Obesity who has calculated the cost of 100 calories of food energy from different types of food.

“The cheapest way to get your 100 calories is to buy fats, processed starches and sugars. A hundred calories of broccoli costs 51p, but 100 calories of frozen chips only cost 2p. Good-quality sausages that are high in meat but low in fat cost 22p per 100 calories, but “value” fatty ones are only 4p per 100 calories. Poor quality-fish fingers are 12p per 100 calories compared with 29p for ones made with fish fillet that are higher in nutrients. Fresh orange juice costs 38p per 100 calories, while the same dose of energy from sugary orange squash costs 5p”.

The result? Rising obesity, and the associated diseases, among Britain’s poor. This is one reason why life expectancy can differ so radically within just a short distance in Britain, as you go between low-income and higher income areas: by as much as 28 years – yes 28 years – according to WHO.

One of the areas investigated by Engels was ‘Little Ireland‘, populated by those who escaped the Irish famine of the 1840s. The area that was Little Ireland is close to the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University.

3.9 million British Children in Poverty

30 September, 2008

That’s one in three children, according to the Campaign to End Child Poverty, a coalition of more than 130 organisations including Barnardo’s, Unicef and the NSPCC. The BBC has reproduced their map of child poverty hot spots here.

They have data on every parliamentary constituency in the UK. Their new figures show that 174 constituencies have 50 per cent or more children living in (or on the brink) of poverty. Their report says:

“Birmingham Ladywood tops the list of the grim league table with 81 per cent – or 28,420 – of its children in struggling families. And within Ladywood one ward, Aston, has 87 per cent of its youngsters struggling to get by. But this is still not the most concentrated area of child poverty. An estimated 98 per cent of children living in two zones in Glasgow Baillieston – Central Easterhouse and North Barlarnark and Easterhouse South – are either in poverty or in working families that are struggling to get by”.

This might focus politicians minds, as we move towards a general election by, at the latest, mid 2010. But will there be any cash left in the treasury after bailing out Britain’s feckless banks, we wonder?

A Ribbon for Safe Motherhood

22 September, 2008

Every minute another woman dies during childbirth – or soon after from easily preventable causes. Many die before childbirth, in pregnancy. Death takes mothers, daughters, and wives from their communities, leaving widowers and orphans.

Today in Manchester I heard Sarah Brown and Brigid McConville speak movingly of their work with the White Ribbon Alliance for safe motherhood. WRA is an international alliance with members in 91 countries and National Alliances established in 11 – ranging from Burkina Faso to Bangladesh to Zambia. It is taking the campaign to New York this week for the UN Millennium Development Goal summit to push on the maternal health goal (MDG 5). Improvement has been limited: DFID sums it up:

“. There are two targets: one to reduce maternal deaths and the other to provide universal access to reproductive health. Little progress has been made over the past two decades and MDG 5 is severely off-track”.

Poverty is a cause of maternal death. An African woman has a 1 in 16 chance of dying from a pregnancy while a European has a 1 in 1,800 risk. And maternal mortality is a cause of poverty. The household loses not only a human life, but the income that the woman’s livelihood provides. The Chronic Poverty Report cites health crises, and the associated impact on the household’s resources (including health fees), as a big initiator of the descent into chronic poverty. This makes for hungry and sick children. Orphans are more likely to die after their mother’s death – their chance of death is three times the average for children in the 1-5 age group. One mother’s death thereby ripples across the generations.

Do check out the WRA video for their Promise to Mothers Lost campaign, and read Sarah Brown’s letter in Elle.

It’s Called the Girl Effect

18 September, 2008

CARE has a neat video on the huge impact of educating girls: “It’s called the girl effect”. Indeed it could be an investment with one of the largest returns — for both the individual and their society.

Larry Summers found that  on average wages increase by more than 10% to 20% for each additional year of schooling (with the returns being especially high in Africa and South Asia, where literacy is lower: go here). He calculated that there was a much higher return to society from investing in the human capital of girls than in such ‘hard’ infrastructure as electric power plants. And then there are the positive effects on infant mortality, maternal mortality, and the position of women in their societies. Summers did his calculations back in the early 1990s, and subsequent research has continued to confirm the substantial benefits of girls’ education.

For further work in this area go to the BWPI working paper series. Farhad Hossain and Tonya Knight discuss the use of micro-credit for education in Bangladesh in ‘Financing the Poor: Can microcredit make a difference?’. The Grameen bank provides education loans (as well as scholarships for its clients). Increased female education has contributed to improving their social status over the last three decades: this is evident in the number of women who now have jobs in banking and other service sectors in Bangladesh.

Also check out the work of Ruth Levine and Nancy Birdsall at CGD. A good site for advocacy and research, especially on what the IMF and World Bank are up to, is Gender Action.

Should Cash Transfers Come with Conditions?

1 September, 2008

Or in other words, do governments know best? Best, that is, for poor people. If so, then adding conditions to a cash transfer alters household behaviour in ways that might help them escape poverty faster. Linking cash transfers to school participation is an example. Conditional cash transfers (CTTs) are on the rise (see this new book by BWPI’s Armando Barrientos and David Hulme, as well as the CPRC Kampala conference on social protection next week).

One view is that households know what’s best for themselves. So adding conditions to cash transfers to poor households is redundant. But collecting information is costly (in both time and money). Therefore households are unlikely to have full information. If so, then conditionality could steer them in a direction that they would go if they were fully informed. For example: Governments are likely to have a better understanding of the benefits of immunization than households, so conditioning the transfer on immunization will help.

Knowing whether conditionality does deliver tangible gains is vital. One reason is that conditionality by its nature implies monitoring, and monitoring has a cost. If conditionality does not deliver a gain then the money spent on monitoring might better go to increasing the size of the cash transfer itself (and even if there is a gain, it needs to be one big enough to justify the administrative cost of imposing conditionality).

So how do we capture the behavioural effect? It’s tricky, because behaviour can’t be directly observed. A new IPC one pager reports on the latest work by Alan de Brauw and John Hoddinott which aims to get around this problem (go to IFPRI for the full paper). They found that some households in Mexico’s PROGRESA (now called Oportunidades) did not receive the forms necessary to monitor their children at school, so their cash transfers were in effect unconditional. Their school enrollment is compared to the (majority of) households who were monitored.

Result? If the household was not monitored then its children were less likely to attend school on average. This effect is significant but modest. However, the absence of conditionality really kicks in when children should be moving from primary to secondary school. School attendance was severely reduced when children were making the transition to lower secondary school. These effects are even stronger when the household head is illiterate. De Brauw and Hoddinott conclude that:

“… debates over “to condition or not to condition” are overly simplistic. In the case considered here, there is clearly little benefit to conditioning transfers based on enrollment in primary school. However, in terms of increased school enrollment, there are large benefits associated with conditioning transfers at entry into lower secondary school”.

Hence, you can get a lot more bang from your CTT buck by focusing in on situations where altering household behaviour has the biggest effects — in this case encouraging more households to send their kids to secondary school.