eBASE, effective basic services:Cash Transfers

Cash Transfers

Low impact for moderate cost based on very limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Cash transfer programs aim to provide financial assistance to low-income households in order to support school enrolment and/​or attendance and as a result, improve pupil’s educational attainment outcomes. This evidence summary focuses on the impact of cash transfer programmes on the academic attainment of pupils.

A distinction can be drawn between unconditional cash transfers, where transfers are made regardless of recipients’ adherence to prerequisite conditions, and conditional transfers, where transfers are only paid if recipients meet specific requirements such as regular attendance at school or health clinics.

Programs also differ in the amount and regularity of how transfers are made to households. The recipient of the cash transfer can vary between and within programs, with some using scales’ of eligibility based on household income and/​or pupil background, gender, age and number of siblings. Outcomes for pupils receiving transfers also differ. In some programs, attendance is the sole measurement used to determine efficacy, whereas others may monitor and report attainment, enrolment, absence, drop-out, and grade progression or repetition.

1. The impact of cash transfers on educational attainment is, on average, low (+1 month). Effects are slightly higher for children in primary schools (+2 months). If schools’ principal concern is increasing pupil attainment, then they might consider other, more cost effective ways to improve pupil attainment. There is some evidence that lower attaining pupils tend to receive additional benefits from cash transfers.

2. Conditional transfers or approaches where enrolment or attendance is monitored tend to be more effective (+2 months). Attaching additional health conditions to the transfer (such as attending a clinic) are also associated with higher impact (+2 months).

3. A small positive impact was found on pupil attendance (around 15% higher attendance). The theory of change for cash transfers impacting pupil attainment involves the transfers increasing pupil attendance, which would eventually lead to increases in learning. 

The results of rigorous evaluations, such as those with experimental trials or with well-controlled groups, suggest that the average impact of cash transfer programs on educational attainment has typically been small but positive (+1 months’ progress). Impact on attendance is generally positive but there is a lack of evidence to determine the effect on additional outcomes such as enrolment, absence, drop-out and grade repetition/​progression. Conditional transfers – where recipients have to adhere to prerequisite conditions such as regular attendance at school or health clinics in order to receive a transfer – have shown greater impact, compared with unconditional transfers where there are no conditions attached.

Most evaluations of cash transfer programs are conducted in Low and Middle Income countries (LMICs). There is a lack of evidence regarding their use and effectiveness in High Income Countries (HICs).

There are some concerns that cash transfers may be misused by adults within the household, particularly when conditions such as regular school attendance is not monitored or enforced. When transfers are conditional upon pupil attendance, which is subject to monitoring or enforcement, there appears to be a greater impact on pupil outcomes.

Overall, there appears to be a higher impact of cash transfers on attainment at primary school level (children aged between four-11 years).

Effects of cash transfers are higher for literacy than for mathematics or science, though the number of studies for comparison is small.

Studies are typically conducted in LMIC countries where these programs are most prevalent. There were 15 countries as the setting for studies included in this analysis, with the majority of studies undertaken in Latin America & Carribbean. Four studies were undertaken in Sub-Saharan Africa (Uganda, Malawi) and one in the Middle East & North Africa (Morocco).

There are several different approaches to cash transfer payment including the use of conditional or unconditional transfers, monitoring and enforcement of transfer conditions and use of eligibility assessments to determine the allocation and amount of financial assistance received. Common characteristics of cash transfer programs may include:

  • Eligibility determined by household income or location;
  • Transfer recipient is typically the head of the household, usually the mother, although may sometimes be given directly to the student;
  • Transfer amount may vary by household income, gender and/​or age of student and number of siblings. In addition, bonuses may be awarded for adherence to transfer conditions or continued enrolment in school or the cash transfer program;
  • Transfer payment may depend on meeting conditions such as regular attendance at school or health clinics, achieving good’ grades or promotion to the next grade; or
  • Transfer duration may be limited to a set period of time or until completion of secondary education. In addition, recipient eligibility may fluctuate due to failure to meet transfer conditions or changes in household income.

It is crucial that programs that award cash transfers to households also monitor/​enforce pupil attendance at school to mitigate the risk of transfers being misused or misappropriated.

Costs associated with cash transfer programs arise from the provision of financial assistance to participating households as well as awarding bonuses to recipients and providing incentives to schools to publicise and encourage program participation, all of which are recurring costs.

The costs of cash transfer programs range from approximately $1 to $200 USD per student per month. This is based on the amount households receive per student, it does not take account of bonuses and incentives. As a result, the overall cost of cash transfer programs may be much higher.

The range in the amount of transfer made to recipients varies widely depending on household income, gender and/​or age of student and number of siblings. In addition, bonuses may be awarded for adherence to transfer conditions or continued enrolment in school or the cash transfer program. As a result, the average amount a household may receive per month is highly variable. The amount of transfer will also depend on the country in which the program is active and the associated costs of education in that context.

In Malawi for example, the monthly transfer amount was between $1 and $5 USD, whereas in Mexico, the monthly transfer amount was between $2 and $75 USD. Transfers in HIC contexts were much higher, with an average of $150 USD in the US and $200 USD in the UK.

The security of the evidence around cash transfers is rated as very limited. 26 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. The topic lost padlocks because:

  • A large percentage of the studies are not randomised controlled trials. While other study designs still give important information about effectiveness of approaches, there is a risk that results are influenced by unknown factors that are not part of the intervention.
  • There is a very large amount of unexplained variation between the results included in the topic. All reviews contain some variation in results, which is why it is important to look behind the average. Unexplained variation (or heterogeneity) reduces our certainty in the results in ways that we have been unable to test by looking at how context, methodology or approach is influencing impact.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies26
Review last updatedSeptember 2021