Last week, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi directed the government to expand social protection, including increasing the Takaful and Karama cash transfer programme’s beneficiaries to more than 20 million citizens nationwide.
The expansion of social protection creates an opportunity to assess and adapt programmes to further improve impact and cost-effectiveness while considering the already demonstrated impact, implementation, and management. Good evidence will better guide public resource mobilisation decisions in Egypt’s tight fiscal space.
Rigorous assessment of Egypt’s cash transfer programme showed promising initial impacts, as well as implementation and management issues that require attention.
Last week, I argued in favour of continuing to shift government budgets away from food subsidies towards an expansion of cash transfers.
This article provides consideration of only two elements of Egypt’s cash transfer programme, conditions, and community-based monitoring committees. Many issues merit consideration in the design, implementation, and management of Egypt’s social protection programmes, and will be featured in future articles.
I urge that consideration of cash transfer conditions and community-based monitoring committees include:
Imposing conditions on Takaful and Karama beneficiaries after demonstrating the impact and cost-effectiveness of the conditions separate from the cash
Cash transfer programs without conditions deliver significant impact without high administrative costs in the context of significant health and education service delivery issues.
Impact is comparable to those from programmes with conditions around the world. At the very least, Egypt could test and demonstrate the cost-effectiveness to decide whether conditions are necessary, and if so, which ones are driven by which social and economic goals.
Get rid of the 2,600 community-based monitoring committees
Cash transfers and other improvements to Egypt’s social protection system make positive adjustments to the social contract. Local committees undermine these national gains by increasing local social tension and violence while utilising significant resources for what seems like little return.
Conditions on Takaful beneficiaries
Between its launch in 2015 and rigorous programme evaluation in 2018, health and education-related conditions were not enforced for Takaful and Karama beneficiaries.
Research from that period showed beneficiaries and other key groups had very little knowledge about the Takaful and Karama cash transfer being conditional on school attendance and mothers taking their children to health clinics. It has since been a priority to enforce conditions, although to date, little public information about the implementation of the cash grant’s conditions is available.
There is no good reason to make conditions automatic for cash transfers. The decision is better based on whether the cash alone can deliver the desired impact. What benefits do the conditions produce separate from the cash? Are those benefits worth the high administrative costs of monitoring the conditions? Will the conditions punish the poor who face health and education-related supply side issues?
“For the Takaful and Karama Programme: There is a need… to make sure that the conditionality — which is a core building block in the design of the programme — gets to be really implemented over the coming years. We do not want to penalise the already poor families, but rather motivate them to send their kids to school and take better care of their health,” concluded a 2019 research paper from the American University of Cairo’s (AUC) School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
Conditions for cash transfers can penalise the poor because of the structural problems of the supply side of education and health if that becomes the reason for the exclusion of poor households from a vital form of support.
While Egypt has finally engaged in health and education sector reforms that have been discussed and studied for decades, holding beneficiaries responsible to procure services potentially penalises them for the kinds of services available to them.
Moreover, poor households face serious liquidity, social, and other constraints to educating their children and seeking appropriate health care services. They also experience more financial and other shocks than the non-poor that can force less preferrable decisions about schooling, health, and expenditures.
Approaching conditions as a mechanism to motivate the poor to make better decisions ignores all the different types of issues poor households face in procuring health and education services. This perspective can also represent a paternalistic belief that poor people make bad decisions and need to be forced or nudged to make good decisions.
Monitoring conditions is administratively expensive. The decision to enforce conditions should be based on the impact of the conditions separate from the impact of the cash, as well as the cost-effectiveness.
Experience in many other countries shows that cash transfer programmes without conditions do deliver significant impact without high administrative costs in contexts with significant health and education service delivery issues. Impact is comparable to those from conditional cash transfer programmes around the world.
Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia all have cash transfer programmes that do not require health and education-related conditions that show impact on key health and education indicators, use of preventative services, and related expenditure.
Cash transfers without conditions give a household more budgetary flexibility. Programmes show impact on household livelihood strategies and reduced negative coping strategies, such as begging or removing children from school.
Egypt’s Forsa Programme — which focuses on economic inclusion through job placement, asset transfer, and skills development currently under expansion — targets Takaful and Karama households. These linkages are important as Egypt develops more protection to production intervention activities.
There is no good reason to enforce conditions without internalising the evidence that demonstrates impact without conditions, the real health and education supply side constraints, and the high administrative costs.
More could be done to test and demonstrate the cost-effectiveness to decide whether conditions are necessary, and if so, which ones for which social and economic goals.
Community-based monitoring committees
Committees are a hallmark of Egyptian bureaucracy; they are everywhere. There are about 2,600 community-based monitoring committees that supervise the cash transfer programmes. Are these committees producing benefits to the programme that are cost-effective?
The rationale seems to be to promote the programmes, provide support for applicants, and ensuring that only the deserving and not the undeserving receive cash. The committees are comprised of local representatives of Egypt’s main demographic groups (women, youths, civil society) and include a few social sector officials.
Practically, community committee members representing the community will not have current or extensive knowledge of the programme and cannot and should not monitor social services.
Committee members have been physically attacked and blamed when benefits have stopped or when households have been excluded from the programme. Research shows they are often perceived as government informants there to disqualify households from benefits.
Local tensions can create a lack of trust for the national programme, potentially undermining its effectiveness. Are the committees effective enough at producing benefits that counter these costs?
A 2019 AUC study found that community monitoring committees have disqualified 120 beneficiaries from receiving assistance because community monitors believed they were misreporting their income, which the study said was “considered a success by the committee, ministry, and involved official stakeholders.” The study also says it has “become a priority for the ministry to improve the work of the committees and resolve their inefficiencies.”
Some have offered recommendations to change the mandate or structure, or to build the capacity of the community monitoring committees. Perhaps it is best to focus on whether community members have the technical qualifications to ensure appropriate programme targeting and adequate access to quality health and education services.
More so, is the number of fraudulent cases uncovered by 2,600 committees of people worth the local mistrust being created and undermining the national programme? There are other mechanisms to screen and deter illegal capture of programme benefits that can be implemented.
Both conditions and community-based monitoring are administratively costly in terms of financial, human, and other resources. The benefits they produce and their costs should guide whether they remain features of Egypt’s Takaful and Karama cash transfer programmes. Given the information that is available, it seems both issues merit further consideration.
Dr Iris Boutros is a behavioural and development economist and strategist. She writes about employment, enterprise development, inclusion, and economic growth. Her work currently focuses on gains and value from connecting behaviour, the brain, and the body.