Policy expertise

Insights into the economic impacts of cash transfer programmes in sub-Saharan Africa: Delving deeper through systematic, qualitative analysis

Policy Area
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
OPM contact

This project has provided in-depth evidence on the economic impacts of cash transfer programmes across sub-Saharan Africa. To date, analysis of impact has largely focused on those indicators that can be quantified while ignoring those that are less tangible but equally important. As part of the FAO’s From Protection to Production (PtoP) project, we conducted systematic qualitative research into the impact of cash transfers in six countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi and Ethiopia. Participatory tools such as social mapping, community wellbeing analysis and livelihood matrices to gain in-depth insights into the household-level and community-level dynamics triggered by cash transfers. Specifically, areas of inquiry cover how cash transfers can (i) facilitate change in household productive activities, including intra-household decision-making processes; (ii) improve household adaptation to risk and shocks; (iii) affect informal risk-sharing and insurance mechanisms; (v) impact the local economy; (vi) be perceived differently and have differing impacts depending on programme operations. Findings from the study help to untangle some of the ‘mediating factors’ that foster or hinder cash transfer impact, as well as highlighting important impacts often ignored by quantitative evaluations - including those on community social relations and the psychosocial wellbeing of recipients.

Popularised in the early 1990s in Latin America, cash transfer programmes are now at the forefront of the international policy debate as one of the most effective social interventions for tackling poverty in developing countries. Many evaluations of cash transfer interventions assess impact based purely on quantitative metrics, such as poverty (often proxied by expenditure), food consumption, or health and education outcomes. However, to date, only limited evidence is available on the complex channels through which these impacts are mediated at the household and community level and on the wider, less ‘tangible’ impacts that cash transfers can have.

This research project was established to address this evidence gap by providing systematic qualitative evidence from six countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have recently been implementing cash transfer programmes. Specifically, the research focuses on three inter-related impact areas – household economy, local economy, and social networks – while also analysing cash transfer operational issues to understand how programmes could be better designed to increase productivity and improve economic impacts.


We carried out rigorous and systematic qualitative and participatory research in six different countries: Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi and Ethiopia.

The team designed a sampling strategy that allowed for comparisons between districts and communities at different stages of market integration within each country.

A common research methodology was developed, discussed, tested and adopted in each case study country, ensuring results were comparable while still being tailored to local contexts. The methodological approach incorporated a range of participatory tools allowing the investigation of household- and community-level dynamics of cash transfers. Fieldwork took place over a period of two weeks with one of our researchers present throughout the process to allow for in-field data analysis and feedback sessions with local community members.

Specific activities undertaken by the team included:

  • Designing a three-stage sampling process to allow for comparisons between economically more and less vibrant communities and control communities where cash transfers were not operating
  • Developing and implementing a ‘toolbox’ of participatory methods within Focus Group Discussions and Key Informant Interviews. These included social mapping, community wellbeing analysis and livelihood matrices
  • Conducting in-field community feedback sessions to support in-field data analysis and results validation
  • Undertaking extensive literature and documentation reviews including both ethnographic literature and quantitative evidence from programme impact evaluations to ensure triangulation with other data sources
  • Convening workshops to disseminate and discuss findings with key national-level stakeholders including government officials, donors and programme implementers

This project has provided important insights into the potential economic development impacts of cash transfers on the rural poor in sub-Saharan African countries. In particular, our research is helping address key knowledge gaps in the area – for example, the interaction between public and traditional forms of social assistance (lending and borrowing through social networks). In turn, these insights will help contribute to more informed policy decisions across the region whilst widening the evidence base around cash transfer programmes and their contribution to longer-term social impacts more broadly.

In addition, by providing a high quality methodological ‘template’ the project will help feed into further research in this field, contributing to the wider debate around qualitative and quantitative research. Importantly, our research shows that rigorously conducted qualitative research, complemented by triangulation with quantitative evidence, can lead to rigorous results.


Senior Consultant
Portfolio Leader, Education
Associate Consultant
Leader, Social Development