Opinion: Measuring the unintended benefits of a development program

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Research from Bangladesh shows development programs often have a bigger impact than we intend — or even measure.

We are a team of economists that evaluated the Transfer Modality Research Initiative — a pilot safety net program that provided cash or food transfers, with or without nutrition behavior change communication, or BCC, to poor mothers of young children in rural Bangladesh — to assess impacts on household food security and child nutrition.

We found that TMRI not only improved food security and nutrition, but also had a range of unintended benefits. The combination of transfers and BCC led to a sustained 26 percent reduction in intimate partner violence 6-10 months after the two-year program ended in 2014. It also led to improved nutrition knowledge and practices of community members who were not part of the program.

Evaluating the program

We observed that women participating in the program — particularly those receiving the added nutrition BCC component — appeared more confident and outspoken and reported more interactions with their neighbors. These observations motivated the team to add new measurements to the existing evaluation — to rigorously study impacts on the women themselves, including their experiences with intimate partner violence and on spillover benefits to neighbors in the form of nutrition knowledge and practices.

This analysis showed that although the TMRI program was designed to improve food security and child nutrition among the participating households — which it did — it ended up having more broadly transformative impacts on its female beneficiaries, their families, and their communities.

BCC had several components designed to improve infant and young child feeding practices that also indirectly increased participants’ empowerment and social interactions. These included weekly group meetings for beneficiary women led by trained nutrition workers, fortnightly visits by nutrition workers to the women’s homes, and monthly group meetings between program staff and influential community leaders. These program features may have been especially powerful in the study context, where women tend to be quite isolated due to the practice of purdah, or female seclusion.

While TMRI cash transfers increased women’s economic resources, researchers believe that BCC increased social resources and agency within the household by fostering consistent social interaction and increasing knowledge on a topic valued by the community.

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These changes may have led to sustained increases in women’s bargaining power within the household, allowing them to stand up to their husbands and see that violence is unacceptable — even after the program ended.

Moreover, consistent with the initial field observations, the team found that nonparticipant neighbors regularly came over to hear what BCC-participant families had learned in training sessions — thereby also taking on the message, leading to improved nutrition knowledge and practices in the broader community.

These findings could have important policy implications in both developing and developed countries. Cash transfers bundled with BCC appear to be a powerful combination with unanticipated yet significant, multilayered, and positive impacts on people’s lives.

Although the cost of BCC was sizeable — an estimated $50 per year for each recipient or some 6 percent of households’ annual income — its benefits were far-reaching and multidimensional. Questions remain as to how sustainable these benefits are over the longer term, a topic the team plans to address in the near future.

About the authors

  • Akhter%2520ahmed%2520headshot

    Akhter Ahmed

    Akhter Ahmed is a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and country representative for IFPRI's Bangladesh office.
  • Ishita%2520ahmed%2520headshot

    Ishita Ahmed

    Ishita Ahmed is a research assistant at the University of Virginia.
  • John%2520hoddinott%2520portrait

    John Hoddinott

    John Hoddinott is the H.E. Babcock Professor of Food and Nutrition Economics and Policy at Cornell University.
  • Melissa%2520hidrobo headshot

    Melissa Hidrobo

    Melissa Hidrobo is a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
  • Shalini%2520roy%2520 %2520portrait

    Shalini Roy

    Shalini Roy is a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.