Cash transfers, otherwise known as social grants, are growing in popularity in low and middle income countries. Their main goal is to reduce the poverty and inequality gaps that exist between advantaged and disadvantaged families. There are many positive outcomes linked to cash transfers. For example, children in households that benefit from them enjoy better health, nutrition and schooling.
But on their own, cash transfers are insufficient to address children's multi-dimensional needs. More and more, experts are advocating for complementary interventions to strengthen cash transfers' positive effects. These strategies, known as Cash Plus interventions, can mitigate psychosocial, systemic and structural risks that compromise children's well-being in disadvantaged families.
One example of a Cash Plus intervention in South Africa is Sihleng'imizi, which means "We care for families" in isiZulu. It was based on research by the Centre for Social Development in Africa, then designed, executed and evaluated by a team of researchers from the Universities of Johannesburg, Chicago and Utrecht. Sihleng'imizi was specifically designed to complement South Africa's child support grant.
The child support grant reaches over 10 million children and goes a long way towards meeting children's constitutional rights.
We did a study to establish the effectiveness of Sihleng'imizi in supporting family care for better child well-being.
The study findings suggest that 80% of families involved in the programme reduced the use of harsh parenting, including physical punishment. A core part of the programme was sharing effective alternatives to corporal punishment which increase family communication, problem-solving skills and positive role-modelling. This demonstrates the value of complementary programmes which can offer positive outcomes for children beyond the material.
The study sample consisted of 60 families from ten of Johannesburg's most disadvantaged wards. Families were assessed at the beginning and at the end of the programme, which ran for 14 weeks. We then drew comparisons between those who received the child support grant and the family intervention and a control group that only received the grant. We interviewed caregivers, children and educators.
The intervention programme is a group based psycho-educational intervention offered in local communities. It was delivered by social workers and child care workers from the City of Johannesburg who worked in collaboration with no-fee paying primary schools.
Positive communication between caregivers and children improved for 87% of families in the study and there was significant improvement (95%) in caregivers perception of their own effectiveness as parents. A reduction of 5% in caregiver depression between the intervention and the control group was also noted. One parent said:
Before I used to scream and shout... but now I speak calmly.
Another caregiver said that since the intervention:
Since the group I don't beat her... I think beating her is something that makes her afraid... so I have realised that talking is the good way to work with her.
Another caregiver said she was more confident.
I am more confident, more flexible than before... it's not a tough game any more.
Parents also became more engaged in their children's schooling, especially when it came to helping with homework. Caregivers felt more confident when speaking with teachers, and a third of children whose families received the intervention said they enjoyed school more.
The programme had an additional unintended but positive consequence: it encouraged participants to reach out more to their extended family members. These relationships are important in enhancing families' social and community connectedness. Participants also reported improvements in savings and their own ability to manage budgets, as well as increased knowledge of nutrition. They now considered the nutritional value of food rather than only the cost when buying food.
These positive outcomes suggest that the programme could offer great value to children and families if integrated into existing social services. The social policies are already in place to link cash with care services to disrupt deep-seated and cumulative disadvantage. But, some building blocks need to be in place for a successful outcome.
First, social workers and social service professionals need to be adequately trained, supervised and mentored to deliver high impact preventive interventions of this kind. And second, the country's over-reliance on formal court-mandated child protection to promote child well-being needs to be reexamined. These remedial strategies are necessary, but limited as the dominant approach, because they can't reach large numbers of children and families.
Sihleng'imizi demonstrates what's possible when teachers, social workers, local authorities and university researchers work together to design and test local innovations. Holistic interventions that cross the silos between social sector agencies will take countries closer to achieving better outcomes for children and their families.
Professor Eleanor Ross, Jenita Chiba and Dr Karen Luck also contributed to this article.