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Fighting poverty: a programme that makes a difference in Nicaragua

Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) are a popular tool in the fight against poverty in developing countries. Researchers working in Nicaragua have shown that CCTs paid to mothers have positive long-term effects on their children’s health and cognitive development..

Fighting poverty: a programme that makes a difference in Nicaragua. © Fotolia, Robert Lerich
By Sebastián Escalón, translated by Emma Morton Saliou
Updated on 06/30/2017
Published on 02/23/2016

There is no shortage of ideas on how to fight poverty. But how can we be sure they really work and are not just window dressing?  Researchers are conducting scientific studies on the effectiveness of aid programmes for the poorest segments of the population in developing countries.
One such researcher, Karen Macours, an INRA economist based at the Paris School of Economics, is studying conditional cash transfers. This technique, aimed at reducing poverty and its worst effects on children, was developed in Mexico and Brazil in the 1990s.  It has since been adopted in several other countries in Latin America and Africa.  
The principle is simple: the government provides mothers in very poor, often rural, communities a (generally) modest sum. In exchange, the mother promises to send her children to school and take them for medical check-ups. Mothers also receive information on nutrition and infant care. They are also encouraged to invest the money in education and food for the children.
Karen Macours and her team wanted to know whether these programmes had a long-term impact on the physical and cognitive development of the children, as cognitive skills are closely related to an individual’s ability to succeed and escape poverty.

Nicaragua under the microscope

Since the early 2000s, Karen Macours and her team have been following the outcomes of children in a quite isolated rural area in western Nicaragua. The country is the second poorest on the continent after Haiti. The local CCT programme was successfully implemented for a few years, until 2007, when it was suspended following a change in government.  
From 2000 onward, scientists measured the height, weight and the results of certain cognitive tests of children between the ages of 0-6 living in villages which  received payments and others which didn’t. The study compared children who benefited from these payments in early childhood and those who did not, and continued even ten years after the programme began.
Results are unequivocal: children in families who received payments had higher test scores and demonstrated superior physical development thanks to a more nutritious diet and more frequent medical care. Researchers also showed that program impact was highest during pregnancy and for children between the ages of 0-2. The “thousand-day window”, from conception to a child’s second birthday, is the period during which malnutrition and disease have severe and persistent effects on a person.

A living lab

One of the main strengths of the study is the long-term perspective offered by the implementation of the programme, which ended nearly ten years ago but still provides positive effects today.
Similarly, researchers demonstrated that positive effects on health and cognitive development are not only due to the increased household income. The social component of the programme – encouraging mothers to take better care of their children, feed them healthy, more suitable food – also contributed to the long-term success of conditional cash transfers.
The scientific team would like to go further: by following the young Nicaraguans who benefited from the CCT programme, they wish to see if, aside from physical and cognitive effects, the programme provides a real chance for them to escape the cycle of poverty.  

Scientific contact(s):

  • Karen Macours Paris-Jourdan School of Economics (PSE)
Associated Division(s):
Social Sciences, Agriculture and Food, Rural Development and Environment.
Associated Centre(s):