In the last decades the conditional cash transfers (CCTs) have become a “fast social policy” in the developing countries, claiming to reduce intergenerational poverty by investing in children’s education. As the World Development Report 2018 indicates, these programmes remain popular and the subject of praise by both governments and donors alike, the World Bank being a case in point. Yet, are the CCTs really the magic social policy for alleviating poverty? The research I conducted on the impact of CCTs in the Philippines addresses this question. In this post, I zoom in on what happens in schools in the Philippines after children receive the CCT grant.
My passion for research on equitable, universal quality education brought me to Quezon City, Manila in 2016, where I analysed the Filipino CCT’s impact on children’s education. As with other adaptations of CCTs, it had its origins in the ‘90s, in the Brazilian Bolsa Escola, which was a targeted social safety policy. Its main purpose was to provide cash grants to poor families in return for them complying with conditionalities on education, in "an integrated approach to poverty reduction".
Yet, various impact studies show that the results of CCTs are mixed. For instance, the Filipino CCT records high results for the compliance indicators of enrolment and attendance but learning is not monitored. This shows not only the CCT’s limited definition of a satisfactory educational experience, but also that little is known about what happens in schools after the children receive the CCT grant. This provided me with the perfect research opportunity to get a more in-depth understanding of the impact of CCT’s in the Filipino context. For this purpose, I used the concept of educability, which considers that the success of a social policy depends also on children’s pre-existing living conditions, that are likely to distort its expected impact. Emphasizing that everyone has the potential to be “educable”, the concept refers to both material and non-material “conditions to learn”, that need to be in place for effective learning to take place.
The results confirmed the difficulty of assessing a CCT as plainly a good or bad policy. The experience of CCT beneficiaries in schools shows a tangible diversity in its impact. One evident case is children’s performance, which ranges from a few brilliant and average to children barely passing the class. A common cause for this relates to the family environment. For instance, children’s work inside or outside their household leaves them tired and unfocused during classes, or they completely lose interest in school.
Interviewer: Do you think the CCT beneficiaries’ situation at home influence how they learn in school?
Teacher: 4ps situation at home is very different. Non-beneficiaries have parents that encourage them to learn, they help them, while the 4ps have parents that ask them to work, to help them with the expenses. So, yes, it affects them.” (Teacher, Balara Elementary school, Quezon City, female)
Also, while it is certainly challenging to grasp the CCT’s impact on non-material factors, some findings reflect the emotional and social comfort of beneficiaries within the school. Thus, beneficiary children, regardless of gender, generally perceive teachers as role models and tutors. They also tend to enjoy being in class. Moreover, the entire school represents a happy place; the safest and most pleasant social space for children to be. Their most important social interactions happen here.
Interviewer: Do you enjoy going to school?
Student: Yes, because at home sometimes I am sad, sometimes I am happy, but when I come to school, I am always happy.” (Student, Balara Elementary school, Quezon City, male, 12 years old)
Student: Yes, because the teachers are nice and good.” (Student, Commonwealth High School, Quezon City, female, 14 years old
Yet, even if their peers do not stigmatise them, the beneficiaries feel ashamed at being publicly recognized as “poor”.
Interviewer: Do you feel it affects you other children knowing that your family receives the 4Ps grant?
Student: I don’t feel affected that other children know but sometimes I get a bit ashamed; but overall I still think is it a good thing that we receive the 4ps because it helps us. Sometimes I just feel shy that we receive it.” (Student, Balara Elementary School, Quezon City, female, 13 years old)
Student: Yes, I feel that other children pity me.” (Student, Tandang Sora High School, Quezon City, male, 13 years old)
Furthermore, though teachers show understanding and compassion for the hardships experienced by these children, an unconscious bias may be detected in their advice that beneficiaries should be segregated in classes adjusted to their perceived slower learning pace.
Interviewer: Do you think 4ps students should attend classes more adjusted to poor children needs?
Teacher: Yes, because the poor tend to learn very slowly as compared to those coming from richer families and this requires me to adjust my teaching pace, so it is better to have separate classes for them. Also, they need to be motivated more.” (English teacher, Balara Elementary school, QC, female)”
Finally we come to the unintended effects of CCT’s. For instance, adults in children’s lives seem to take extraordinary measures for children not to lose the grant. In some cases, teachers give children some homework to do at home, even if they might not have accumulated the necessary knowledge and in optimal conditions. This is easily understandable, but it also amplifies the pressure on children to both continue doing exhausting chores, since nobody takes this load off them, while increasing the study time.
To wrap up, my strong stance is that investing in education is not a “yes” or “no” question, rather a case of “how” to make education a successful experience. The research showed that the Filipino CCT makes a significant contribution to some aspects of children’s education, but less to others, and its effects vary largely. Therefore, the CCT is not a quick fix for reducing poverty through education, but it can be made better if it is opened to adjustments. One way is to consider both material and non-material factors in all spheres (home and school) and how these might affect children’s subjective disposition towards learning. When taking a step back, children’s hopes and aspirations in the Philippines and other developing countries are a relentless reminder of the urgency of this endeavour.