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World: Study Instructs On Building Social Safety Net

  • Robert Lyle

Washington, 14 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - As the nations in transition from central planning work to redesign social safety net programs aimed at helping their poorest and most vulnerable citizens, especially women and children, a new study says that unless they check family and household dynamics they may completely miss their targets or cause very unexpected consequences.

The study says it is necessary to bring together the disciplines of economics, anthropology, sociology and nutrition to find who within a household or family gets what share of the resources, from food to health care, and what are the rules of allocation.

This information is vital if, for example, one is attempting to design feeding programs for children in parts of southern Asia where families feed girl children less food and less often than boys, regardless of family income.

Per Pinstrup-Anderson, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, says with "so many people suffering from poverty, malnutrition, hunger and doing damage to the natural resources, we have to understand better how households function and how they can be influenced in order to deal with these problems."

The institute, which conducted the study, says the subject seems on its surface so simple that it has been largely ignored. But, it says, this combination of scientific approaches is "extremely urgent" because those who design social safety net programs don't understand the necessity of examining the inter-relations of social, cultural, economic and familial factors.

The institute's Director of Food Consumption and Nutrition and lead editor of the study, Lawrence Haddad, says various sciences have focused on their own areas - economists building models of family units, women's groups studying reproduction rights and health care, anthropologists and sociologists looking at the differences between men and women.

This study, he says, begins to bring these together so that policy leaders better understand the impact of even simple programs.

Co-editor John Hoddinott points to a program in the 1980s aimed at helping the women in the African nation of The Gambia improve their incomes. The women in that nation traditionally were in charge of growing rice. So the solution was to turn rice into a product that could be sold in the markets and thereby raise women's share of household income.

But as the rice yields grew, and the women began taking in money, the men took control of the rice crop and the profits it generated. The program designed to raise female incomes wound up actually reducing them, says Hoddinott.

"We've tried to crack open the household 'black box' and have found a host of interesting insights that will help policy makers better target their policies to reach the poor," he told reporters at a briefing Friday. "Without such knowledge, errors in understanding household decision-making can cause the policies with the best intentions to backfire."

In many nations in transition, he notes, public works projects are a traditional method to transfer money to those in need. But public works projects typically attract only adult males because the work is usually very physical and may require being away from home. Hoddinott says the underlying assumption is that it doesn't matter - that the men will take the money home and spend it for the benefit of their families. "One of the things we document is that assumption is basically wrong - men and women spend money in different ways."

Generally, women tend to spend on things considered more pro-child, such as food and clothing. However, says Hoddinott, the Gambian example shows that "life is not so simple" and that much more complex examination of circumstances needs to be undertaken if the aim is to simply target resources toward women.
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