Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Teach a man how to fish? Social transfers in a “hungry” nation

by Hussain Bux Mallah

You can teach a man to fish, but does that ensure his household’s nutrition?
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In the last two decades, there has been a lot of debate around social transfers, particularly cash transfer programmes. Do cash transfers give people dignity of choice, help them mitigate shocks and empower them, or do they “patronize” and provide an incentive for doing less work? Opponents almost always evoke the “teach a man to fish” proverb. However, there is an old joke built off this same proverb that says that even if one is taught how to fish it is likely that ‘he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day anyway.’ There is a grain of truth to this: with or without conditions, one can’t control what people choose to do with their time and resources. Still, many countries do try to ascertain the possibility that recipients spend cash transfers responsibly. In the United States, ten states require passing tests for drug use before one is eligible for welfare cash assistance or benefits. 

To me, this discussion about cash transfers being “patronizing”, an incentive for doing less work and irresponsible spending are disconnected from the realities of a place like Pakistan. In Pakistan, a quarter of the country’s population consumes less than 1,800 calories, and half consumes less than 2,100 calories per day. According to the National Nutrition Survey (2011), 44 percent of children aged below five years are stunted and over half suffer from vitamin A deficiency and anemia. What should be done here? When hunger is chronic and widespread, where should limited resources flow? Should we “give fish” in the form of cash transfers, or “teach people to fish” with trainings on microcredit and payments against labour?

Let’s start by acknowledging that the Pakistani government is transferring cash to people already. In a context where a number of people are suffering from severe levels of malnutrition or hunger, it is giving large subsidies to oil, energy, agriculture, food prices and exports to benefit the corporate sector, elite, middle classes and the salariat. The poor and marginalized are not direct beneficiaries of these subsidy programmes. Women agricultural workers and others whose work is unrecognized, are not only the most vulnerable to hunger and under-nutrition, but also the last to receive any benefits that flow to the bottom (if at all). I wonder why the “teach people to fish” argument is directed on those who are already at the very bottom and not others in a more affluent position.

The entire debate has been dominated by many “why” and “how” questions explored via multi-year follow-up studies and donor arguments for putting conditions on the poor before a cash transfer (of approximately $13 per month) or a goat is given. This development approach doesn’t provide fish, but only provides fishing tools to those following a certain diet plan.

Research on cash transfers in India, Brazil, South Africa and other countries suggests that “cash transfers can be cheaper and more cost-effective to deliver than food handouts.” In Pakistan too, the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), a targeted social transfer programme for women in extreme poverty, is recognized as a successful systematic development initiative for poverty reduction and women’s empowerment and agency. This is despite the fact that investment on BISP is comparatively lower than the investment on various other subsidies and temporary charity packages in Pakistan.

Research, policy, and development circles need to go beyond the debate of “fish or fishing”, and move towards a rights based approach. This means implementing universal social transfers to end hunger and investing in the “right nutrition” during the critical 1,000 day window from the first day of conception to the second year of a child’s life. This can protect children from chronic disease, stunting, wasting, and anemia and will allow for their healthy growth, brain development and stronger immune systems. This method also decreases economic burden by eliminating the large costs of ongoing mother and child health care programmes.

The government could adopt universal care of mothers for 1,000 days with the provision of monthly cash transfers and a supply of supplementary and complementary caloric feed and vitamins. The upper/upper-middle class or the wealthiest quintile of the population could voluntarily forfeit social transfer benefits which would then allow poor and marginalized sections of the society, particularly women and infants, access to adequate nutrition.

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