Evaluating the effectiveness of an unconditional social cash transfer programme for the ultra poor in Malawi

Publication Details

Abdoulayi, S, Angeles, G, Barrington, C, Brugh, K, Handa, S, Kilburn, K, Molotsky, A, Otchere, F, Zietz, S, Tsoka, M, Mvula, P, Hoop, JD, Palermo, T and Peterman, A, 2017, Evaluating the effectiveness of an unconditional social cash transfer programme for the ultra poor in Malawi, 3ie Grantee Final Report. New Delhi: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie)

Link to Source
Sara Abdoulayi, Gustavo Angeles, Clare Barrington, Kristen Brugh, Sudhanshu Handa, Kelly Kilburn, Adria Molotsky, Frank Otchere, Susannah Zietz, Maxton Tsoka, Peter Mvula, Jacobus de Hoop, Tia Palermo, Amber Peterman
Institutional affiliations
None specified
Grant-holding institution
None specified
Sub-Saharan Africa (includes East and West Africa)
Social Assistance
Gender analysis
Social Assistance
Gender analysis
Equity Focus
Orphans and Vulnerable Children
Evaluation design
Difference-in Difference (DID), Randomised Control Trials (RCT), Others
3ie Final Grantee Report
3ie Funding Window
Social Protection Thematic Window


This study evaluates the impact of the Malawi Social Cash Transfer Programme (SCTP), an unconditional cash transfer programme, aimed to ensure food security and improve consumption among the ultra poor, labour constrained households in Malawi.


The objectives of the SCTP are to reduce poverty and hunger and to increase school enrolment rates in the ultra poor households.  The SCTP is the flagship anti-poverty programme under the social protection pillar of the Malawi National Growth and Development Strategy. It is fully aligned with national priorities and wholly executed by the government, with support from development partners. The programme began as a pilot in 2006 in Mchinji district. The government subsequently expanded it to an additional six districts in 2007. As of May 2016, the programme was reaching approximately 756,000 beneficiaries in 170,000 households across 18 districts. Transfer amounts for the SCTP vary by household size and the number of school-age children present in the household.

The government, in collaboration with development partners and donors, commissioned a randomised evaluation to accompany the expansion of the programme in 2012-13. The purpose of the impact evaluation was to generate evidence about the effects of the programme and to inform its scale-up.

Research questions

This impact evaluation looked at four broad areas: welfare impact on children and their caretakers; behaviour change within the household; access to and linkages with other social services; impact on the familial environment for children. The question on the economic impact of the programme was particularly deemed important for addressing the concerns of sustainability.

More specifically, the impact evaluation answered these questions:

1. Does the SCTP improve consumption, reduce food insecurity and increase diet diversity?

2. Does the SCTP affect economic productivity and wealth accumulation?

3. Does the SCTP affect health and nutrition of young children?

4. Does the SCTP affect schooling and child labour among older children?

5. Does the SCTP affect the safe transition into adulthood among youth?

6. Does the SCTP affect the health and well-being of caregivers?


Intervention design

Eligibility criteria are based on a household being ultra poor (unable to meet the most basic urgent needs, including food and essential non-food items, such as soap and clothing) and labour constrained (defined as having a ratio of ‘not fit to work’ to ‘fit to work’ of more than three). Household members are defined as unfit if they are below 19 or above 64 years of age, or if they are aged 19 to 64 but have a chronic illness or disability, or are otherwise unable to work.  The transfer amount varies based on household size. There is a bonus for school-going children, which is determined by the number of children in the household who are of primary and secondary school age. Beneficiary selection is done through a community-based approach, with oversight provided by the local district commissioner’s office and the district social welfare office.

Evaluation design

The impact evaluation for Malawi’s SCTP uses mixed methods, longitudinal experimental study design, combining quantitative surveys, qualitative interviews, group discussions, and simulation models to demonstrate wider community economic impacts.

The quantitative survey design consists of a cluster-randomised longitudinal study with baseline surveys (household, community and business) which began in July 2013 and two follow-up surveys (household and community). The midline survey was conducted in November 2014 and the endline survey was conducted in October 2015. The qualitative survey is an embedded longitudinal study of 16 treatment households, which includes three main components: in-depth interviews with the caregiver and a young person (aged 13-19 at baseline) from each household at baseline, midline and endline; key informant interviews with community members at midline and endline; and focus group discussions in each study traditional authority at baseline, midline and endline.

The longitudinal impact evaluation includes 3,531 SCTP-eligible households located in 29 village clusters across four traditional authorities in two districts. There are 14 village clusters (1,678 households) in the treatment group and 15 village clusters (1,853 households) in the control group.

Main findings

The SCTP achieved its primary objective of ensuring food security and improving consumption among the ultra poor, labour constrained households. The programme impact on total per capita annual household consumption was Malawi Kwacha (MWK) 10,380 that represented an increase of 23 per cent over baseline; this increase was 53 per cent amongst the poorest households. For every MWK transferred, beneficiary households generate an additional MWK 0.69 through productive activity. These results speak directly to arguments that such programmes foster dependency, or that cash transfers are not used

wisely by the poor or must be provided with conditions.

The SCTP had noticeable impacts on the ownership of both agricultural and non-agricultural assets.

The cash transfer improves adult health and increases use of health services. The SCTP reduced the occurrence of any illness or injury for adults during the past two weeks by six percentage points. The programme increased the probability of seeking treatment at a public or private health facility among those individuals with an illness or injury by 12 percentage points.

The SCTP also significantly improved caregivers’ outlook of their future well-being with caregivers in treatment households being 18 percentage points more likely to report they think life will be better in one year compared to those in control households.

The programme also generated strong positive impacts on the material well-being of children. Given the unique demographic structure, the eligible STCP households had relatively few children under the age of five. Thus, compared to household economic and consumption impacts, the impacts on young child health and nutrition were less pronounced. Although, strong effects were noticed on children’s school participation across all age ranges. These effects did not merely reflect increased enrolment, but increased regular participation in school (i.e. participation without extended withdrawal during the school year). The study did not observe strong effects on grade progression, but these effects may materialise in the longer run.

The results of the SCTP strongly suggest that unconditional cash transfer programmes to the ultra poor can be an important part of an inclusive growth strategy even in very poor countries.

The survey instruments, baseline and midline reports, and a report on the impact of the SCTP on household resilience can be found here.

Policy influence

After the baseline, the government decided to change the social cash transfer size, after they asked the research team to conduct simulations of different transfer levels and estimate its impact on predicted outcomes. The research team presented the baseline and this work at a workshop attended by major actors involved in the programme and the evaluation. This change was implemented in May 2015. The substantial increase brings the transfers to a level that meets the generally accepted guideline for having widespread impacts.

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