Research project

Social cash transfers, generational relations and youth poverty trajectories in rural Lesotho and Malawi

This research, funded by ESRC-DFID, generated evidence regarding how social cash transfers (SCTs) .

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Start date

January 2015

Completion date

January 2019

It focused on rural youth in two rural communities in Malawi, which recently introduced SCTs to ultra-poor labour-constrained households, and Lesotho which operates pensions and child grants. The research also investigated the policy communities that designed and are implementing the schemes.

Social cash transfer schemes, which disburse cash to poor and/or vulnerable people, have proliferated across sub-Saharan Africa over the past two decades. There is growing evidence that these address symptoms of poverty among their target populations, particularly children and the elderly. However, poverty cannot be understood by focusing on symptoms alone. It is an outcome of structural power relations including social relations of gender, age, generation and class. To fully understand the impacts of cash transfers, therefore, it is necessary to examine how they intervene in, and are negotiated through, these social relations. Focusing in particular on the effects of cash transfers on young adults, a group whose interests have often been neglected, this report examines how cash transfers shape relations of age, gender and, especially, generation. This contributes to a more nuanced understanding of whether, and to what extent, cash transfer schemes are transforming poverty in rural African communities.

The research took place in Malawi and Lesotho, examining the ways in which three cash transfer schemes are designed, operate and affect rural lives: Lesotho’s Old Age Pension and Child Grants Programme and Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Programme. Qualitative research was undertaken in two rural communities, one in the sparsely populated Maluti Mountains of Lesotho and the other in densely populated Thyolo District in southern Malawi. Most households in both communities were sustained through varying combinations of subsistence agriculture, livestock rearing and remittances from migrant workers. In depth interviews were conducted with multiple members of 24 households that were receiving cash transfers, and with 64 young people aged 18-34, some of whom had moved away from the villages over the past decade. Participatory workshops with groups of young people subsequently focused on how cash transfers intervene in household and community dynamics. Research was also undertaken with around 100 individuals involved in the design and implementation of social protection policy in the two countries.

Analysis of the data collected points to five policy-relevant conclusions that are discussed in the full report.

Targeting of vulnerable households is based on false assumptions about households. In both countries, households are fluid, with individuals and resources constantly flowing in and out. Many cash transfer recipients receive remittances from migrant family members. Moreover, households are not bounded units of consumption. In southern Malawi, the typically small nuclear households are often closely connected through kinship and material ties to other, sometimes more prosperous, households located very nearby. Children may be moved between them to capture grants. Changes in circumstance are seldom reported: in Malawi, three recipients had “inherited” transfers, despite substantial changes in household membership, following the death of a beneficiary. Even where selection criteria are initially applied as intended, household targeting is poorly understood and implemented at the community level and often appears random. Although the benefits of cash transfers are visible to all, seemingly arbitrary targeting breeds resentment in those who do not benefit but perceive themselves to be equally poor.

Targeting the elderly is perceived to be fair and may contribute more to community bonds, though young people may invest in more productive activities. In both communities, younger families in receipt of transfers experience resentment from neighbours, as they are perceived as undeserving. However, elderly people are considered worthy beneficiaries. Lesotho’s old age pension was almost 2 universally praised, and in the Malawi community most transfers went to elderly people selected through community targeting. In Lesotho, the pension is sufficient to allow elderly people to exercise economic influence beyond the household as employers, lenders and key members of savings groups. In contrast, child grants are spent on immediate family needs such as groceries and school uniforms and may never enter the local economy. Nonetheless, young people in both communities say the elderly are “stingy” and argue that as fit young adults they would make more productive use of money.

Unearned transfers to young adults promote stigma and social isolation; young people want to work. While pensions are viewed as enabling the elderly to live more independently, child grants are viewed less as grants for children than income for healthy young adults who should rightfully work. Both contribute to nuclearization of the household. Receipt of transfers renders parents responsible for their own children, and less able to call on family or friends for support (although the collateral of a predictable grant allows them to borrow from neighbours). Members of both communities hold that young adults should earn their income. Young people themselves prefer that cash transfers are not given as “free money” because of the shameful association that they are unable or unwilling to work. Rather they aspire to having good jobs, and state that they want to work for money. However, work is often unavailable or involves exploitative conditions. Young people also wish to contribute to development needs in their own communities, and suggest they should be paid to do so rather than receiving cash transfers as “free money”.

Cash transfer schemes are produced through complex national-level processes. Relationships between donors and government differ between the two national settings. Moreover, different approaches are supported by segments of governments and by diverse donor agencies and NGOs, and different strategies are adopted by organisations pursuing their own agendas. Overall, however, divides between political agendas, technocratic visions and community experiences are stark. Policymakers need to engage more both with the national and local politics of cash transfers and with the perceptions and social realities of beneficiary communities in order to effectively achieve the cash transfers’ objectives.

The disconnect between policymakers and beneficiary communities can be addressed. The research team brought national and district level officials to the case study villages to hear the concerns and experiences of community members. Planning and preparatory work included facilitation of a participatory exercise through which young adults develop and performed dramas and songs concerning their experiences. These acted as a stimulus for discussion leading to co-construction of knowledge about transfers through which the government officials became better attuned to how cash transfers function in the relational lives of rural people.

Full report reference: Ansell N, van Blerk L, Robson E, Hajdu F, Mwathunga E, Hlabana T and Hemsteede R 2019 “Social cash transfers, generational relations and youth poverty trajectories in rural Lesotho and Malawi”, Brunel University London, available at: