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Social cash transfers, generational relations and youth poverty trajectories in rural Lesotho and Malawi


Project description

This three-year collaborative research project has generated evidence about the ways in which social cash transfer (SCT) schemes intervene in and transform the structural power relations that underlie the reproduction of poverty. It has focused on rural youth and draws on qualitative research in two rural communities, one in Malawi, which has recently introduced social cash transfers to ultra-poor labour-constrained households, and the other in Lesotho which operates social pensions and child grants. The research also investigated the policy communities that designed and are implementing the schemes. It was funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and Department for International Development.

Key findings

 Report cover Project report

Webinar (hosted by socialprotection.org)

Cash transfers are viewed by recipients as invaluable for poverty reduction, but their full effects depend on how they intervene in social relations. In depth research in recipient communities reveals:

  • Schemes that target vulnerable households are based on inadequate understanding of household dynamics, and as a consequence are perceived as arbitrary and unfair.
  • Cash transfers to the elderly (particularly where they are universal) are perceived to be fairer than those to young adults and may contribute more to community bonds, though young people may invest more in productive activities.
  • Unearned transfers to young adults may promote social isolation; public works schemes are widely viewed as a more legitimate way of assisting young families.

Policy briefs

Policy Brief 1: Overview

Policy brief 2: Household targeting: problematic misconceptions of household dynamics

Policy brief 3: Social pensions: benefits beyond the individual

Policy brief 4: Supporting young people through cash transfers and poverty reduction strategies

Policy Brief 1 Overview Policy Brief 2 Household targeting Policy Brief 3 Elderly people Policy Brief 4 Young people

Policy brief 5: Producing sustainable and effective cash transfers

Policy brief 6: Engaging government officials with local communities for policy impact

Policy brief 7: Lesotho’s Old Age Pension and Child Grants Programme

Policy brief 8: Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Programme

Policy Brief 5 Producing policy Policy Brief 6 Engaging government with communities Policy Brief 7 Lesotho Policy Brief 8 Malawi


A webinar discussing the key policy-related findings from the research.

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Thandie and Nicola explain how the project is designed to achieve impact on policy and practice.

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Brito R 2019 Social cash transfers, household targeting and generational relations in Malawi and Lesotho https://socialprotection.org/discover/blog/social-cash-transfers-household-targeting-and-generational-relations-malawi-and

Ansell N 2019 Out of reach: targeting fails to keep pace with household dynamics https://www.developmentpathways.co.uk/blog/out-of-reach-targeting-fails-to-keep-pace-with-household-dynamics/

Development Pathways 2019 Cash transfer design can strengthen or weaken social relationships, universities find https://www.developmentpathways.co.uk/news/cash-transfer-design-can-strengthen-or-weaken-social-relationships-universities-find/

Ntshongwana P, Ansell N and Roelen K 2019 How social protection can empower women https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/rethinking-social-protection-for-women-by-phakama-ntshongwana-et-al-2019-05

Hemsteede, R. (2018) Social cash transfers: the risk of Malawi’s donor dependence. Available at https://issblog.nl/2018/11/27/development-dialogue-2018-social-cash-transfers-the-risk-of-malawis-donor-dependence-by-roeland-hemsteede

Hemsteede, R. (2018). From manual to digital: First hand insight into Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer. Available at http://socialprotection.org/learn/blog/manual-digital-first-hand-insight-malawi’s-social-cash-transfer

Hemsteede, R. (2018). Conditional or unconditional cash transfers? From ideology to policy dialogue. Available at http://socialprotection.org/learn/blog/conditional-or-unconditional-cash-transfers-ideology-policy-dialogue

Hemsteede, R. (2017). Lesotho’s Child Grants Programme: From donor pilot to government programme. Available at http://socialprotection.org/learn/blog/lesotho’s-child-grants-programme-donor-pilot-government-programme

Hemsteede, R. (2017). Community level implementation of cash transfers: Eligibility, fairness, and informal redistribution. Available at http://socialprotection.org/learn/blog/community-level-implementation-cash-transfers-eligibility-fairness-and-informal

Hemsteede, R. (2017). Fragmented donor funding: Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Programme. Available at http://socialprotection.org/learn/blog/fragmented-donor-funding-malawi’s-social-cash-transfer-programme

Other publications

Ansell N 2019 Young women and cash transfers in rural Africa in Impact Initiative (ed) Women, Work and Social Protection, ESRC-DFID Research for Policy and Practice, Brighton: IDS https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/14373/R4PP_WomenSocProtection_Online.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Details of the research


Youth poverty is important, not least because of its implications for the future, yet rural youth poverty has received little attention from researchers or policy makers. The major recent innovation in policy responses to poverty in sub-Saharan Africa has been social cash transfer (SCT) schemes which disburse cash to poor people. There is growing evidence that these address symptoms of poverty among their target populations, particularly children and the elderly. However, impact evaluations have paid minimal attention to their effects on young adults or generational relations.

Poverty is increasingly understood to be produced through structural power relations including political and economic relations, and relations within and between social groups (based on social categorisations such as gender, age, generation and class). If the impacts of SCTs are to be fully understood, we need to examine how they intervene in and are negotiated through these structural relationships.

Research aims

This research focuses on the effects of SCTs on the power relationships that structure young lives. It examines how SCTs shape generational relationships as well as relations of age and gender. This will contribute to an understanding of the factors that shape pathways into and out of poverty and people's experience of these, and how policy can create sustained routes out of poverty.

The project has five objectives:

1. To identify how specific structural power relationships shape young people's poverty trajectories, focusing particularly on generational relations

2. To identify how SCTs operating in Malawi and Lesotho intervene in these structural power relationships, and the consequences for young people's poverty trajectories

3. To examine how political and economic power relationships between national and international institutions are implicated in the design and implementation of SCT schemes

4. To develop an analysis of young people's poverty trajectories and policy responses that conceptually connects national and international political economic processes with social relations of generation, age and gender

5. To develop and refine a methodological approach that facilitates the involvement of young people in the identification and analysis of the structural relations at the root of their experiences of poverty


The research will build on the findings of a previous project (2007/8) which explored the life histories and aspirations of 80 young people, then aged 10-24, in two villages. Follow-up interviews will be conducted with these young people, some of whose households now receive SCTs, to explore what has happened to them over the past eight years, and the factors that have shaped their situations and fortunes. In depth interviews will also be conducted with members of five households in each village that are in receipt of SCTs to explore further the impacts on relations of gender, age and generation. Subsequently, participatory workshops with groups of young people will examine in greater depth the processes that produce and perpetuate poverty, and how SCTs intervene in these processes. Meanwhile, research will be undertaken with policy makers to understand the national and international level processes that led to the schemes’ introduction and design. Finally, workshops with representatives of agencies, NGOs and government will engage in further analysis of the findings. These workshops will identify key policy lessons.


Thyolo District, Malawi

Thyolo District, Malawi

Thyolo District, Malawi

Maluti Mountains, Lesotho

Maluti Mountains, Lesotho

Maluti Mountains, Lesotho




The project began in October 2015.

Preparatory phase: October 2015-March 2016, including field visits in January/February

Interviews with community members: April-November 2016

Policy-focused interviews: August-November 2016; April-July 2017

Participatory group workshops in communities: April-July 2017

Community feedback and policy workshops: January-February 2018

International dissemination workshop: January 2019

Publication of final report: July 2019