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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 been generating evidence about the ways in which social cash transfer (SCT) schemes intervene in, and potentially transform, the structural power relations that underlie the reproduction of poverty. It focuses 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 focuses on the policy communities that designed and are implementing the schemes. It is funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and Department for International Development.


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

Maluti Mountains, Lesotho




The project began in October 2015 and will last three years.

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: May 2018

Publication of final report: September 2018

Impact activities

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