Cash Transfers in the Global South: A Social Justice Perspective

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Katarina Pitasse Fragoso. Click here to access the article.

How should we transfer the means of alleviating poverty to those most in need? Giving in cash seems to be a plausible way. However, most of the programmes, at least in the Global South, require burdensome conditions. In my article, I argued against the way main kinds of conditions are operationalised (e.g., regarding intrusive means-testing, the requirement to work, and to achieve human development). Second, I explored the idea that anti-poverty programmes can only reflect an expansion of social justice if the poor are included and able to take an active role in shaping social policies that impact them. Then, I proposed two applied routes: distributing resources by an unconditional cash transfer and power by a participatory device. While my paper is built upon on normative argument for justice, it refines the case for supporting this goal by mapping existing public-policy programmes and providing a practical solution.

Cash transfers are social programmes primarily concentrated on tackling the extreme deprivations of low-income families. They distribute money directly to recipients, which is a polyvalent and regular format, allowing for different potential consumption choices. Cash transfers programmes represent a leap forward compared to in-kind programmes, which allocates a predetermined type of consumer goods to low-income families, such as food or clothing, preventing beneficiaries from exercising their own choices, and disregarding their capacities to judge and decide what kind of good they need.

Although we have advanced in rethinking what is due to the poor (cash or good in nature), little progress (at least in developing countries) has been achieved in answering the question of how the state should transfer the means for alleviating poverty to the hands of beneficiaries. Or, to ask a more general question, are procedures of cash transfers fair? To reply to that, it is worth looking at the problematic procedure of cash transfers programmes. As it is well known, cash transfers in the Global South typically require at least one of the following three conditions. The first form of condition involves the eligibility of beneficiaries who must undergo means-testing to be identified as being below the poverty line. The second requires beneficiaries to work or actively look for a job. The third form of condition asks beneficiaries to use certain public services.

The way these conditions are operationalised are intrusive and burdensome for the poor, which I understand as unfair. This is so because the condition of eligibility requires people to disclose personal information or respond insulting questions. Second, the condition of work does not reflect on how the job market is oppressive and not open to all due to reasons other than the individual’s will or failure. Third, the condition of using public services does not take into account if the beneficiaries can have access to health and education systems. The rationale behind my claim is that conditions are stipulated on the government’s terms without much knowledge and care about how the beneficiaries are treated and can deal with them.

One main line of philosophical rationale comes from this: cash transfers with burdensome conditions, then, undermine respect towards those already struggling to survive, by considering them not as full citizens in their own right, but as irrational and irresponsible beings. However, as I see it, the poor should be capable of receiving social benefits without burdensome conditions. This is to say that alleviating poverty requires going beyond conditional cash-transfers and means for empowerment should be guaranteed institutionally (e.g., opportunities to the poor to speak out their interests and being heard to influence public decisions that directly affect their lives). To be clear, this argument recognises that the poor are, in principle, the best unit to defend their own interests, and their interests should guide polic-making.

As an initial route for applying this idea, I have suggested two possible avenues. At the national level, governments should give a regular in-cash transfer to poor individuals with less burdensome means-testing, without imposing conditions on beneficiaries such as having to actively seek a job or use public services. At the local level, policy-makers and poor communities should come together regularly to exchange views and arguments to decide on what should be done to improve public services in their areas. This adds, of course, some extra costs in alleviating poverty. However, in its most basic format, the participatory device could be carried out by existing staff (from the local administration) and taking in consideration the capacity of public institutions (schools, neighbourhood associations, and so on). I think, and I argued in my article, that these proposals together seem to move in the social egalitarian direction, and the rationale behind them is based on their capacity to respect the poor as full citizens, as having voice, interests and views that first and foremost matter.

About the author

Katarina Pitasse Fragoso is a Doctoral Candidate at KU Leuven.

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