Interview with Keetie Roelen, The Institute of Development Studies

Poverty and Inequality

Keetie Roelen discusses concepts of vertical and horizontal equity in order to identify differences, understand levels of inequality and inequity and how inequalities intersect by examining groups affected by multiple inequalities. 

Interview Conducted on January 23, 2014 

 1.What do you think about current concepts of equity and equality? What is your perspective on these existing concepts? What concept/theory do you use?

The different concepts of horizontal and vertical equity are all relevant and important to use when trying to identify differences between income distributions or demographic groups for example. These conceptual frameworks enable us to understand the different levels of inequity and/or inequality that characterize the reality of certain groups or populations. Just last week I was teaching graduate students about the difference between horizontal and vertical equality and equity. What I have found very useful recently is thinking about this concept of intersecting inequalities. To do this, we begin by closely examining which groups are experiencing multiple disadvantages or multiple types of inequalities. In that same lecture, for example, I used an intriguing diagram about education outcomes (education enrollment, in particular) for boys and girls in Bolivia, and what we saw is that there was a significant difference.  But then we see what happens when we look at girls in rural areas versus boys within urban areas, or when we look at girls in rural areas with elderly parents versus boys in urban areas under the same condition. We continue to do this over and over again to see how these compounding factors of inequality and deprivations add up and identify particular groups as much more vulnerable and marginalized. I think this is a very strong way of showing how certain groups in our society are really affected by multiple disadvantages, and how difficult it is to reach out and pull them out of that condition.

 

2. From your point of view, what are the main causes of increasing inequities at the local, regional and global level?

 A global concern is that inequities and/or inequalities are rising as a result of the current climate of economic crises and austerity measures, particularly in developed countries. All of this permeates into developing countries, and not just through the channel of development aid.  A recent report shows that more than half of all households in the UK that were considered poor are now considered “working poor.” This then places an entirely different meaning on the emphasis of work as a way out of poverty, which the UK government maintains is the most effective way of lifting people out of poverty. But how is this possible if you have very little job protection or if your wages do not enable you to make a decent living? I think this is a very serious concern when we talk about increasing inequities at the global level. This is particularly the case as these changes are not just a transient affair that are reversed once the economy picks up again. What is happening in a lot of countries is a systematic deconstruction of the welfare state. With workers losing their rights, it will be very difficult for workers to reinstate any rights related to job protection or minimum rights legislation. My concern is that we are going down a path whereby people who are working have little protection and workers no longer have a guarantee for decent living conditions. All of this has serious implications for the children of those families as well.

 

3. What are key results or recommendations of your research on equity which policy makers and practitioners should know of? On what evidence do you base those?

 

My own research is around child poverty on the one hand, and social protection and child protection specifically on the other hand. One of the things that has struck me when carrying out evaluations or reading through evaluations of social protection programs, or other programs that aim to reduce poverty and improve outcomes for children, is that some programs focus on the so-called “low-hanging fruits.” This means that they focus on quick results for big groups, which often leaves out the most marginal and vulnerable. But an observation that I find more worrying is that there are many programs that in their design are very much based on assumptions about what works for particular vulnerable groups—these include children or marginalized women. A good example is that of conditional cash transfers.

 

We have expanding evidence from Latin America that says conditional cash transfer programs work. They improve outcomes for children, including children’s health and education outcomes. These types of programs are now becoming more popular across the globe. But we do not actually know to what extent these results can be attributed to the aspect of conditionality; giving out cash without conditions has positive impacts as well. Little is known about the potential negative effects of conditionality. These include potential perverse incentives, such as excluding children in households that live in remote areas lacking supply of services or in households where there are multiple children and it is very difficult to comply with conditions. In other instances, children do go to school, and thus comply with conditions, but quality of education is poor.

 

It is imperative for policy makers to closely examine the intended outcomes and carry out a needs assessment and contextual analysis of what would work within that particular context before designing a program or policy. This includes a broader perspective of what the potential negative side effects or perverse incentives (i.e., unintended consequences) could be.

 

4. What else would you recommend for the design of social protection programmes?

Another important element to keep in mind when designing social protection programs is related to the question of who receives the cash or transfer. An  assumption often made is that if women are the direct recipients, they will be empowered. In other words, their bargaining position would improve. But this does not always hold. In some cases there are very negative consequences to this approach; women are more subject to abuse and violence within the household as it creates intra-household tensions. And even if this doesn’t happen, some of these approaches don’t necessarily lead to the positive effects originally intended.

The available evidence on social protection pointing towards positive effects of particular design features in highly contextualized settings puts the design of programs at risk of becoming a tick-box exercise, with programs being designed on the basis of assumptions about what works for particular vulnerable groups. Program design options must be examined in close detail and deconstructed in order to determine benefits and disadvantages.

A similar observation can be made with respect to social protection programs directed towards Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC). Some programs particularly target OVC, whether they are living in alone in child-headed households or in foster or kinship care families with other biological children. It is essential to target OVC directly in order for the transfers to reach them. But when a household is composed of biological and non-biological children, and the latter are the only recipients of targeted transfers, this can give rise to great tensions within the household and the community. At times, these tensions can compound issues of inequity and marginalization. These are matters that are often not taken into account. We are riding on the many positive waves of social protection programs and often on the assumptions of what underlies the positive outcomes. As a result, we often lose a critical perspective which can be quite detrimental, particularly for marginalized and vulnerable groups.

 

5.What would you then do as a practitioner or policy maker? And is this then related to good methodologies or practices to capture and monitor equity for children?

Indeed, the element of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is important. Programs are developed with a particular ‘theory of change’ in mind. And so when we evaluate the program, we tend to remain focused on that theory of change. We assess very specific outcomes or impact indicators, such as enrollment or literacy rates in the realm of education for example. But it is exactly the unforeseen effects or perverse incentives that are often overlooked in the theory of change, which are then also ignored in the M&E phase.  Examples of these include the issues raised earlier, such as intra-household tensions or tensions within the community. It is therefore very important that before implementation, policy makers engage in a dialogue with critical groups in an effort to think more broadly about the design of the policy and the M&E plan that accompanies it. This creates a feedback mechanism or learning loop which enables one to feed any early findings of unintended effects into the program design and make adjustments. There is a need for more action research element to the implementation and delivery of programs.

 

6. Can you provide concrete “good practice” examples for monitoring and evaluation?

A good example of this is an evaluation we carried out in Ethiopia. This is a cash transfer program targeted to people who aren’t able to work. This means that a lot of participants are elderly, which in turn means that they are often unable to collect the payments as is often more than a two-hour walk. As a result, the program has a mechanism through which the beneficiary assigns a designated person to claim the benefits for them. During the baseline research phase, we found that this happened in more than half of the cases. We also found that in many instances the designated person returned to the participant with the money but then required a portion of the sum (at times, half) for their service. We found this in the early stages of the program, which enabled amendments to program design. For example, more payment points were established as a means to reduce the distance these individuals had to travel to claim their benefits and thereby the need to depend on others for the collection of transfers.

Another important recommendation related to good methodologies for capturing and monitoring equity more effectively is the true integration of mixed methods. Researchers often claim to use mixed methods because they use both qualitative and quantitative methods, and because at some point they bring them both together for verification and triangulation purposes. But I think there remains real room for more innovative and coherent integration of mixed methods. At the beginning of a study, for example, it is important to know what each method aims to capture and how the sequence is to be determined given the strength of each method.  When we talk about children, it is imperative to include important elements such as the perceptions and opinions of children themselves. This must be done in a useful manner, not in a tokenistic way.

 

 

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