In recent times, there is a lot of emphasis on the merits of cash transfer program. A recent article in The Guardian (source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/29/revolution-glob...) in hailed these initiaves undertaken across a few countries as a new panacea that traveled fast, comparing these to Bruce Lee movies.

Indeed there are some positive experiences where conditional cash transfer programs seem to have worked –Bosca Familia or the family scholarship program in Brazil being an example. There are similar experiences in a number of South American countries like Mexico and Chile and most of them seem to be doing reasonably well. There is clear evidence, for example that Bosca Familia, for example has increased enrollment and retention, though the results in terms of the learning outcomes of the students is not so encouraging. However, one could argue that the first important step of getting children out of work and putting them in school has been achieved and that is not a small achievement.

India has also introduced programs on similar lines though on a smaller scale. The Janani Suraksha Yojana is one such program that provides a token amount of Rs 500 to every women belonging to a Below Poverty Line household who has an institutional delivery. Though the program is criticized for its one time financial assistance without providing inputs on child care and development, it is a step in the direction where increasingly there is a feeling that demand side of the issues are perhaps as important as the supply side.

For long it has been argued that all the resources spent in managing developmental interventions could be better allocated to the poor themselves who can then decide what to do with that money. The article in Guardian gave an example from Vietnam where a couple of years ago, Oxfam tried the idea out in a few villages in Vietnam. It notes “Charity workers gave the equivalent of three years' wages in one go to more than 400 families. When they returned they found that poverty had dropped through the floor, with most of the money spent sensibly on food or fertilizers, seeds and cows”.

This is an attractive idea because it offers an escape route a way to bypass the strict and often inefficient bureaucratic machinery. It is also promising in that it gives the whole idea of ‘managed development’ a miss and restores faith in the ability of the people to pull themselves out of poverty. However, important questions about the role of the state and the civil society remain. Just where does the responsibility of the state stop and that of an individual begin? What is the idea is hijacked by the state as an excuse to not take full responsibility of providing services to the people, especially the poor? How does one arrive at the perfect balance of controlling demand and supply of services?

While these and many other questions can be raised, it is important to give the idea a chance and slowly and steadily let people take charge.

Are cash transfer programs the latest developmental mantra or do they have the potential to bring about social transformation?

- Ipista Basu

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