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Emerging Voices: Nicole Tosh on Empowering Girls Through Cash Transfers

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
October 12, 2012

Malian refugee children attend a school in the Mbera refugee camp, about 40 km (25 miles) from the border with Mali on May 24, 2012 (Joe Penney/Courtesy Reuters). Malian refugee children attend a school in the Mbera refugee camp, about 40 km (25 miles) from the border with Mali on May 24, 2012 (Joe Penney/Courtesy Reuters).

Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Nicole Tosh, a program associate with the Global Assets Project at the New America Foundation. She discusses how cash transfers can empower girls living in poverty and the technological innovations that stand to facilitate cash transfers.

Yesterday was the first annual International Day of the Girl. A number of initiatives, partnerships and even films are being released, directing the attention of policymakers, NGOs, and governments squarely to the issues facing girls in poverty. Finally the world is waking up to a reality that 600 million girls are already acutely aware of: life as a girl at the bottom of the pyramid is tough.

The chief argument made by those leading this effort is that anti-poverty interventions targeting girls—rather than women or children generally—disrupt the intergenerational cycle of poverty that traps whole communities. Of course, there are a handful of dissenting voices who disagree with this ever-growing movement. As I’ve written previously, their opposition tends to be based either on a simplistic understanding of the research or generally misdirected.

Research on investments in girls shows that more education leads to fewer but healthier children and higher earnings. Having fewer children leads to a decreased risk of death and other pregnancy-related complications, and more earnings means more money reinvested in the girl’s family. All of this cannot happen, however, unless girls are empowered.

What does empowerment mean? It means giving a girl the opportunity to stay in school rather than forcing her to work in the home or wed in her teenage years, providing her with the resources and knowledge to deal with family planning and other health issues, and allowing her to make her own decisions—financial or otherwise.

The numbers show empowerment matters. Maternal mortality is the single greatest cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19. While the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have made education equality a top priority, girls still comprise 53 percent of out-of school youth; and 75 percent of AIDS-infected youth in Africa are girls.

In light of the stark realities that girls confront, policymakers, NGOs, and governments are beginning to focus their efforts on providing direct assets to girls (DATG). While the term “asset” can refer to a number of different tangible objects (think: bike) and even intangible quantities (think: education), the most basic and literal asset—money, in the form of direct cash transfers to girls—may just be one of the most promising.

The reasons for this are many. Cash transfers, an increasingly recognized antipoverty tool, provide beneficiaries with the means to meet their needs, but perhaps equally important, cash transfers offer economic independence for many of the world’s poorest. But that’s not all. Study after study has shown that cash transfers can have an impact on beneficiaries’ education, health, and overall social capital. In fact, findings shared at this year’s International AIDS Conference on Kenya’s Cash Transfer for Orphans and Vulnerable Children Program showed a decrease in HIV risk behavior among youth who received cash transfers. Specifically, the results indicate that children receiving payments were 30 percent more likely to delay their sexual debut, and 7.2 percent less likely to have multiple sexual partners over the last year.

While research continues to assess the impacts of conditional versus unconditional cash transfers—those that require beneficiaries to meet certain conditions versus those that do not—in general, cash transfers to the poor represent a seismic shift in the way aid is doled out to those who need it most. Whereas in-kind aid (food, fuel, etc.) meets a specific need and seems to imply that the donor rather than the recipient knows best, cash transfers allow individuals to use the money to meet their family’s multiple needs and accepts that the recipient may in fact know what’s best for his or her family. This is the crux of the argument behind the 2010 book, Just Give Money to the Poor, written by policy experts Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos, and David Hulme.

The Global Assets Project at the New America Foundation released a paper yesterday, Investing in Girls: Opportunities for Innovation in Girl-Centered Cash Transfers, examining the landscape of girl-targeted government-to-person (G2P) cash transfer programs across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Seventeen programs across six countries—Guatemala, Yemen, Pakistan, Nigeria, India and Bangladesh—are likely just the beginning of this trend.

Improvements in electronic payment (e-payment) platforms, experimentation with encouraging savings and asset building, and innovations like biometric identification promise to not only allow for more efficient payments to girls, but also to enhance the impacts of cash transfer programs on their lives.

E-payments not only reduce leakages and corruption, but they have the potential to provide beneficiaries with a secure place to store their money away from those who could exert control over girls’ limited financial resources. SMS messages to their mobile phones reminding girls of savings goals could help encourage them to develop a savings habit, which would not only ensure that girl beneficiaries have money set aside for a rainy day, but would also provide long-term benefits for their ability to manage money. Finally, biometric IDs (which rely on voice, iris scans, fingerprints and other unique biological traits) are being implemented in India, where early female marriage is common despite laws in place prohibiting girls to marry before age 18. Biometric IDs can help ensure that girls are “counted” and thus have an identity that allows them to access financial institutions for storing and saving cash transfer payments and that cannot be falsified by parents eager to marry off their daughters.

Of course, there are hurdles to overcome. First and foremost, data on many of these programs is very limited. We need researchers to not only conduct impact evaluations on the overall effectiveness of programs, but also on specific components of program design, paying special attention to the payment and delivery mechanisms. Second, developing countries often lack the infrastructure to provide full financial inclusion. This is where mobile network operators (MNOs), branchless banking systems, and other out-of-the-box approaches to financial access can play a role. Financial inclusion in many of these countries will not happen overnight, but incremental avenues through mobile banking, branchless banking, and in-school banking can open the door for many “unbanked” girls in the developing world.

With the launch of the recent Better Than Cash Campaign, which is encouraging governments to transition to electronic payments for beneficiaries of pensions, social protection programs, and other G2P transfers, more governments will likely jump on the e-payment bandwagon. And with increased attention dedicated to the unique needs and power of girls in the developing world, more of these payments could be directed their way. As these two trends merge together, especially in light of the technological innovations underway, new and exciting opportunities for girls in poverty are sure to follow.

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