Transfer of assets to the extreme poor assumes a programme of immense importance these days. Both the government and NGOs are carrying out such programmes with the belief that it will work well to emancipate them from the clutches of extreme poverty. Following the footprints of Bangladesh, few other Asian and African countries are reported to bank on this type of programmes to pull people out of perilous poverty.
The socio-economic impacts of ultra-poor progarmmes, as they are called, are in avalanche. Many of them are being produced through the lens of empirics. The innovative scheme is just not an asset transfer to the poor, rather, it combines the provision of income generating assets with an integrated approach, embracing multi-faceted training on entrepreneurial activities, health, and nutrition, social and political awareness stretching over a period of two years. Eminent researchers of both home and abroad observed that this model of lifting the ultra-poor works well and sustainably in terms of asset accumulation and income generation. It also works in terms of empowerment of women. But hardly any attempt has so far been made to examine the nutritional effects of the programme. For example, the million-dollar question is, does such intervention help improve nutritional outcomes in poor households living below $0.60-$0.70/day, and if so, what are the pathways? Second, does the knowledge gained by target households somehow spill over to non-target households so that the latter group reaps without sowing?
The inclusion of malnutrition into the analysis of impact assessment of an asset transfer warrants attention particularly in a country like Bangladesh where available empirics are replete with ramifications of malnutrition. For example, malnutrition is a major contributor to child morbidity and mortality in Bangladesh where about one-third of children younger than five in rural areas are underweight while about same share of women reported thinness with Body Mass Index <18.5). The inadequate nutrition increases the probability of contracting infectious diseases, stifles cognitive development and leads to growth faltering for children under 5. Again, malnourished adults are prone to chronic illness such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease accounting for economic cost of 10 per cent of lifetime earnings. But why the issue of malnutrition had to take a back seat in earlier assessments of the programme for the poor? Perhaps the very technicality of the issue restrained researchers from dwelling on that including the problem of measurement of health outcomes.
The findings from a few of the studies, especially by Wameq Raza and others and based on randomised control trials (RCT), appear to be very interesting and insightful. A few of these are, paraphrased at times, submitted below. According to the researchers, there is considerable impact on the nutritional status among ultra-poor ( UP) household members. The impact is most pronounced for children under 5. This is very good news as Bangladesh has very high infant mortality rate although the rate has been falling over time. In addition to improvement in the weight-for-height and weight-for-age indicators, the likelihood of wasting and being underweight gets reduced by 8.0 and 19 percentage points, respectively. Again among 6-19 years age group, the likelihood of thinness drops by 4.0 percentage points, followed by a 10 percentage point reduction in the probability of being underweight. While the gains are generally higher among individuals in female headed households, the researchers find no differences in impact across gender of the specific individual. Nutritional status among adults in ultra-poor households similarly gains from asset transfers, leading to decreases in the likelihood of moderate and severe thinness (by 11 and 8 percentage points respectively).
The most interesting part of the study is the spill-over impact assessment of the programme. The results from such analysis have large ramifications which will be discussed later. They find the asset transfer programmes to generate spill-over effects among non-participating households in treatment areas - the benefits being bagged more by other poor households than non-poor ones.
What are the reasons behind this or what are the pathways? Results indicate that increased duration of exclusive breastfeeding and vitamin A supplement among both ultra-poor and other poor let this to happen through awareness creation. For adolescents and adults in ultra-poor households, several factors contribute to the improved nutritional status. In addition to the rise in income as shown by different studies, there is evidence of improved food security, less likelihood of falling ill and improved hygiene practices. For the other poor, results show improved food security and improved hygiene practices.
The authors however, do claim that their study is not without limitation. But the message from their hard work is that asset transfer of the kind mentioned at the beginning not only has considerable impact on the nutritional status of its participants - most notable for children --but also creates positive spill-over effects among non-participants. Spill-over effects are about half the size of the effects on participants. The spill-over effects, especially among infants (through increase duration of exclusive breastfeeding) are driven by behavioral changes without financial incentives. The operation of the programme over a two year period plays a key role in instilling the message among the participants, ultimately leading to behavioral changes. Dusenberry's "Demonstration Effect" seems to effectively work here although it is through other channel! Asset transfer along with training on health and nutrition could help pull people out of extreme poverty in a sustainable manner. Exposure to asset transfer thus imparts a lesson of causing lasting positive behavioral change.
Abdul Bayes is a formerProfessor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.
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