At a ceremony to mark the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government’s 100 days in office, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his government would provide chickens to underprivileged women in order to lift them out of poverty.
While a number of political stakeholders have ridiculed his statement, there is a lot of research on how and why this intervention can work. The people who are mocking the initiative are actually far removed from the context and lived experiences of rural women.
To understand the magnitude of the problem of poverty — 7.7 million households are living below the cut-off score of poverty developed by the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).
The fate of a lot of lives rests upon the policies developed by the government and trivialising such programmes can be incredibly detrimental to positive change.
To place the chickens within the policy context of Pakistan, I will compare the chicken intervention to one of the most successful poverty alleviation programmes in recent times, the BISP — an unconditional cash transfer programme.
Any woman who falls below a multidimensional poverty line is eligible for a cash handout. This intervention has been seen as a useful tool in alleviating poverty in Pakistan. As per the Food Energy Intake poverty line, BISP reduced the poverty rate by seven percentage points.
I will start by comparing the cash handout with the chickens handout to poor rural women and why chickens might work better given the household dynamics in place.
Firstly, one is a cash transfer while the other can be termed as an asset transfer. Money is more fungible than chickens. While money can be controlled by the men of the household and spent on non-productive or non-household activities, it is likely that chickens would remain in the hands of the women.
Typically, the men tend to goats, cows and buffaloes; there is a masculine connotation attached to tending to superior forms of livestock.
Because chickens are culturally seen as inferior forms of livestock, women are likely to retain control of these assets.
This is likely to increase the role of women in household decision-making: they control the chickens so they may decide on how to divide the eggs in the house or where to spend the resulting income.
On the note of fungibility, a chicken would also limit spending decisions of the household by virtue of being less liquid. Money can be spent on various activities, both good and bad, like responding to health shocks or gambling.
A chicken is a tied investment or forced saving, nudging people away from certain kinds of spending.
As opposed to a cash handout, chickens are an investment. They require low capital and the turnover is high.
They can also potentially help households climb out of poverty. However, the return on investment argument can be slightly confusing.
The remarkable high returns on investment are linked to commercial poultry farming; there are economies of scale on large chicken farms.
Rural households cannot tap into these massive economies of scale.
So, while rural households might not be able to capture the economies of scale, the eggs would still initially support subsistence of households and provide a steady basic income once the brood of chickens multiplies.
The idea of handing out chickens instead of cash is largely appealing because there is some evidence of its effectiveness in South Asia.
In addition to supplementing household income and providing subsistence, research shows that increased capacity gained by women and children through village poultry projects have impacts well beyond the improved village poultry production: chickens have increased food security and improved nutrition.
A possible pitfall of the chicken intervention could be the crystallisation of the role of women in the households.
A conditional cash transfer programme in Mexico handed out the cash to women if certain conditions were met, one of which was that the children of the household must regularly go to nutrition monitoring clinics.
The idea was to spur a household-level behavioural change.
However, because the money was handed out to women, they were responsible for meeting the requirements enforced by the state and thus the women had to take the children to the clinics, rather than the men.
This crystallised their role as caregivers and increased their burden of work.
Similarly in this case, women might be limited to the role of raising chickens and could be actively discouraged from other activities, like seeking higher education or formal employment.
It may also contribute towards increasing hidden child labour. Unintended consequences are always a possibility that should be considered when designing an intervention.
Ensuring an intervention that works
The chicken intervention cannot be rolled out in a vacuum — there would be a need to set up supporting infrastructure as well. Ancillary facilities like veterinarian services and training support need to be setup.
Additionally, serious work needs to be done to provide the women access to markets and strengthening market linkages.
There also need to be steps to organise women to work collectively in order to gain from some of the economies of scale and connect to markets.
Poverty alleviation interventions should be incremental and build on lessons learnt from previous interventions. The poverty scorecard developed by the BISP is a huge step in terms of understanding the dimensions of poverty.
See more: The rural face of poverty
The BISP has been able to develop an extensive database of poor households. The scorecard collects information on the various characteristics of the household as well as its assets.
It enables the programme to identify eligible households through the application of a proxy means test, which determines the welfare status of the household on a scale of zero to 100.
This can be very useful for targeting poor households in this programme too.
Additionally, the BISP has been tested and retested, its impact measured at each step. An intervention of such nature would require similar level of rigour in its design and implementation.
Bill Gates and the chickens
The global world is obsessed with finding a magic bullet to eliminate poverty. There is a reason why big donor organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation love such interventions.
They demonstrate quick results and are easy to measure. The global push towards “value for money” pushes policymakers to consider such interventions.
I would add a note of caution here. Poverty is deprivation on multiple fronts, not just income.
Aspects of time use, productive resources, health, education, rights and availability of services are equally important. Income is used as a crude indicator for all these other aspects.
Because of the multidimensional nature of poverty, it cannot be alleviated with one-time interventions. The causes of poverty are structural and run deep within societies.
Rather than viewing poverty as material deprivation, we need to understand it as a product of inequality and prevalent power relations. We need to analyse the process of design and implementation critically while being realistic about the impact.
Explore: Women’s work and time poverty
The chicken intervention can and should be one of a number of poverty alleviation interventions, not a comprehensive solution. We cannot put all our eggs in one basket at the end of the day.
My fear, therefore, is that the intervention is top-down instead of being bottom-up. While global research and evidence is important, we need to ask ourselves: would it work in our context?
I am curious to find out whether a needs assessment has been conducted. Have the beneficiary women been consulted? Do they want chickens or are we going to force an additional burden on them? What kind of chickens work best in the local context?
For any intervention, the local communities need to be consulted right from the design stage. The intervention should be context-specific and bottom-up rather than top-down.
My key suggestion is to ignore the politicians sitting in the centre. They don’t need chickens like the rural woman might, but ask her before investing money first.
There is a need to step away from mocking PTI’s move to push forth this intervention. The decision is based on international research rather than a complete blind jump.
Let’s try giving the chickens a chance.
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