Designing Social Protection Programs in Latin America Using Evidence

market-960361_960_720The mid-1990s economic crisis in Latin America threatened to sharply increase poverty and left many people vulnerable. In response, governments in Latin America developed and implemented innovative social protection programs in the form of conditional cash transfers (CCTs). To examine the impact of these programs, several governments called on IFPRI to conduct rigorous evaluations. IFPRI’s pioneering work not only measured impact, but also fostered a culture of evaluation that spurred program improvements.

Mexico was one of the first countries in Latin America to provide CCTs to improve health, nutrition, and education through a program called Programa de Educación, Salud y Alimentación (PROGRESA), later named Oportunidades, and now called Prospera. In 1999, the Mexican government wanted an independent assessment of PROGRESA, so it commissioned IFPRI to conduct the program’s first extensive evaluation. Research results found that the program contributed to reducing poverty by 17 percent between 1997 and 1999, and to improvements in health and nutrition for both adults and children, school enrollment rates of girls, and women’s bargaining power. In 2001, largely because of IFPRI’s evaluation, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) approved its largest loan to date to support the expansion of PROGRESA. According to the independent Ex-Post Impact Assessment Review of IFPRI’s Research Program on Social Protection, 2000–2012, "IFPRI’s work with PROGRESA was key to government acceptance of the importance of using evidence in developing social protection policies and programming." In fact, when a new political party took power in 2000, the focus on evidence-based policy making aided the smooth transition of PROGRESA to the new government, even expanding the program’s scope.

In 2003, the government of Brazil consolidated four different social protection programs, creating the largest CCT program in the world—Bolsa Família—that assisted over 14 million poor Brazilian families. From 2009 to 2010, IFPRI, in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Development and Hunger Alleviation, the United Nations Development Program, and the World Bank, assessed the program’s specific impact on women’s empowerment, girls’ schooling, and labor supply dynamics. According to IFPRI’s assessments, Bolsa Família was improving lives by empowering women in urban areas, increasing children’s school participation, particularly for girls, and improving maternal and child health. In 2010, at a joint press conference held by the Ministry of Social Development and Hunger Alleviation and IFPRI, then-minister Márcia Lopes referred to IFPRI’s findings when she discussed how the program had changed the lives of millions of families.

Similar to Mexico and Brazil, the Government of Nicaragua designed a social protection program, the Red de Protección Social (RPS), in 2000 to tackle severe human development challenges, such as high infant mortality and stunting. IDB provided Nicaragua with a loan to help finance this program, and as part of this loan, an impact evaluation was commissioned. In 2002, IFPRI conducted the study Impact Evaluation of a Conditional Cash Transfer Program: The Nicaraguan Red de Protección Social, which identified the program’s key nutritional successes. RPS beneficiaries used their cash transfers to purchase more diverse food, and stunting was reduced by 6 percentage points. According to the Ex-Post Impact Assessment Review of IFPRI’s Research Program on Social Protection, 2000–2012, IFPRI’s research helped convince the government that RPS achieved its objectives, meriting an extension and expansion of the program that was implemented in 2003.

For more information on IFPRI's research and partnerships in Latin America and the Caribbean, please go to this brochure.