Thursday, 2 May 2013

Social transfers: all good for children?

by Keetie Roelen
The positive impact of social protection programmes is now widely acknowledged. They help to increase household income, smooth consumption and protect against shocks. With respect to children, social protection has been found to increase school enrolment and attendance rates, improve nutritional outcomes and reduce child labour. Given these positive impacts, interest in the role of social protection is now also widening to other aspects of children’s lives. Momentum is growing around questions of the potential impact of social protection programmes on child protection outcomes. Last week, UNICEF IRC Office of Research published a paper on the link between social transfers and child protection, a draft version of which was presented and discussed during an expert meeting in Florence last month.

A notable observation from the paper and discussions at the expert meeting refers to the lack of knowledge about the linkages between social transfers and child protection outcomes. Whilst we know quite a lot about the effect of transfers on children’s education and health, few evaluations have considered the effect of programmes on issues of child protection, which would include early marriage, family separation, violence, abuse and neglect. This thin evidence base is not limited to social transfers only; in general we know little about the linkages between social protection and child protection.

The lack of knowledge can be attributed to a number of factors. Firstly, issues of child protection are largely outside of the ‘theory of change’ of social protection programmes. Whilst many programmes include the increase in school enrolment rates and immunization coverage in their objectives, few spell out the reduction of early marriage and prevention of loss of parental care, for example, as explicit goals. Secondly, the effect of social protection on child protection is much harder to observe and study. Child protection violations are much less visible to outsiders, easier to hide and sensitive to investigate. Finally, the linkages between social protection and child protection outcomes are everything but straightforward. Whilst improved nutritional outcomes or school attendance will be highly correlated with an increase in household income through social transfers, the link between household wealth and child protection is much more tenuous.

As such, evidence on the link between social protection and child protection remains thin on the ground. However, the modest information that is available suggests that social protection programmes can far-reaching impacts in terms of child protection – both positive and negative, and that there is a dire need for more investigation in this area.

On the positive side, social protection has the potential reduce child protection violations, largely through its reduction of poverty. Improved household income can prevent the loss of parental care and family separation by avoiding parents having to migrate or leaving their children in the care of others. Poverty reduction is also likely to reduce stress levels in the household, thereby improving the quality of care for children. The provision of transfers can also work as a positive incentive for foster or kinship carers, particularly in areas with many orphans.

That said, the provision of social protection can also have negative impacts in terms of child protection, mostly through perverse incentives or due to unintended side effects of programme implementation. For example The incentivisation of foster care through social transfers can result in low-quality care and ‘commodification’ of children when unaccompanied by careful screening and training of carers. Unintended side effects can result from trying to comply with conditions in CCTs (such as overfeeding or keeping a child underweight when having to meet certain weight requirements) or the requirement to work in public works programmes (including the lack of child care or children having to substitute for domestic or farm work).

There is no doubt that social protection holds great potential for improving children’s lives. However, more information is needed about programmes’ impact on outcomes outside of the more easily observable ones, such as education, health and nutrition. It has been argued before that child-sensitive social protection needs a nuanced perspective, rather than be based on assumptions about we think works and does not work for children (Roelen and Sabates-Wheeler 2012), and this also holds with respect to the link between social transfers and child protection outcomes. An important step in gaining better insights into this link is not merely to do more research, but to do research that goes beyond the parameters as set by social transfer programmes’ ‘theories of change’. This requires an acknowledgement that child protection outcomes are not only shaped by the interventions directly (i.e. the provision of cash or the condition of school attendance or regular health check-ups) but also, or maybe primarily, by the design and implementation features of those interventions. As long as the potential impact, foreseen and unforeseen, of these features is not adequately considered, the picture about the link between social transfer programmes and child protection will remain incomplete and partial, and programmes may cause as much harm to children as they do good.

Barrientos, A., Byrne, J., Villa, J.M. and Pena, P. (2013) Social Transfers and Child Protection. Office of Research  Working Paper WP-2013-05. Florence: UNICEF IRC Office of Research.

Roelen, K. and Sabates-Wheeler, R. (2012) A child sensitive approach to social protection: serving practical and strategic needs. Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 20:3, pp. 309-324.