The ethics of conditional cash transfers

Published on Pambazuka News, by Claire Ichou, Jan 15, 2014.

Around one billion people receive conditional cash transfers today, which have been praised as the magic bullet for poverty eradication. Such programmes are being implemented in Latin America and Africa. But they raise numerous ethical questions – La main qui donne est toujours au dessus de celle qui reçoit – Amadou Hampâté Bâ … //


I have attempted to highlight here some issues in development as a discipline and practice. Whereas CCT programmes appear to be successful in meeting health and education outcomes, they raise a series of concerns regarding their underlying principles and methods. Generally does the end ever justify the means? Based on this case study, I wonder whether we can accept to alienate and paternalize others, to stigmatize people, to impose foreign interventions and to potentially increase harm in the name of ‘doing good’ or in the name development?

I navigate in between institutional and activist spaces that promote contradicting world views on power and development. I am sometimes tempted to ‘do good’ and acquire privileges but I am then reminded that ‘the gains of some groups have been directly conditional on planned sufferings of others’ (Gasper: 2011:1). I find it terribly difficult to reconciliate their different narratives. I therefore locate myself in a constant state of tension and discomfort.

It sometimes leaves me numb and powerless. Like Mr Brown in The Comedians (Greene, 1966), I feel that ‘somehow, somewhere [to have] completely lost the capacity to be concerned’. I am overwhelmed and feel disconnected. This de-linking from humanity appears as a smoothing feeling. After all life just goes on and there is not much I can do. But Goulet (1976, quoted in Gasper, 2008: 13) reminds me that

‘Ethicists themselves constantly vacillate between ethical paralysis or compromise in the face of power, and energetic creativity newly released whenever they catch a faint glimpse of the power of ethics itself… the power of ethics to counter the power of wealth, of politics, of bureaucratic inertia, of defeatism, of social pathology.’

At an individual level, I find the power of ethics and its ‘energetic creativity’ in literature. George Orwell, Jack London, John Steinbeck have taught me to think critically. James Baldwin and Romain Gary have stroke me with their brutal honesty and have reminded me to find the human in every person. The philosophy of Ubuntu has connected me to others and has reminded me that ‘I am because you are’. I cannot exist without you.

I derive agency from the sense of togetherness. I have drawn my strength and articulated my dreams around feminist principles. Third wave and post colonial feminism have offered me analytical tools to understanding the intersectionalities of power relations. It has further given me methodological tools to reflect and to take action. Feminism has taught me the power of collective action. Indeed, power is the strength required to bring about change. Belonging to sisterhood and collectively reflecting and dreaming the world, crossing the line and reclaiming power create solidarity.

True solidarity is based on recognising others as fellow human beings. I will therefore conclude with Kant who reminds us to ‘act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.’ (Kant, 1785). I would like to suggest that there can be no development without putting people at the centre. CCT programmes may reach their intended targets but fail to improve humanity.

(full long text, end-note and references).

(* Claire Ichou considers herself a lucky global citizen. After extensive travel in Southern Africa and the Caribbean, amazing encounters and two masters degrees in development studies and public health, she has decided to go back to France and live according to her principles of feminism and solidarity. She promotes an intersectional understanding of inequalities and dreams about radical changes).

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