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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

the condition of conditionality

By Henry Kippin

Interesting contrast in a couple of news stories coming from the states in the last few days.  On the one hand, portents in the Guardian of a difficult 2 years for President Obama in the face of a Republican controlled Congress.  On the other, a piece in the New York Times on falling inequality in Brazil.  The articles are interesting in themselves.  But something else seems striking.  For many new Republicans (some Tea Party affiliated), the idea of government spending people’s money – in the form of social security, socialized healthcare, sheer government profligacy etc – is abhorrent.  On one level, this is protest against conditionality – that the public is free to earn, on the condition that some of their cash is held back to spend on the ‘public good’.

The NYT article is about the Bosa Familia initiative in Brazil – which aims to reduce poverty through direct cash transfers to the poor:

“The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements.  The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention.  The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families.  The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow.”

Plenty has been written in the international development field on the pluses and minuses of this approach (see here for example), but it seems to be working in Brazil. Similar schemes are up and running in Mexico and Tanzania.  As the article says, ‘if current trends continue, the United States may soon be more unequal than Brazil.’

So what is the relationship between the two articles?  On the one hand, they both show the politics of conditionality in different lights.  The public seems far more willing to impose conditions on the poor, or those who would ‘squander’ the resources given to them (cf perpetual benefit cheats exposes in the UK), than accept conditions on high earnings (wrangling over bankers pay, for example?).  The public are more than willing to impose conditionalities on the behavior of government.  This is a good thing.  But those affiliated to the Tea Party seem less willing to contemplate much conditionality in their own behavior and spending.  Sometimes this is a good thing, too.  But as Matthew Taylor alluded to recently, (and an Economist piece supports), citizens seeing themselves as the ‘passive victims of leadership’ without a sense of its responsibility and compromise is a pretty unsustainable mix.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 10:33 am
Friday, May 22, 2009

Conditionality 2020

By Henry Kippin

James Purnell spoke at the 2020 PST yesterday, giving his take on the future of welfare in Britain.  I thought he spoke well and had some sound ideas, even if the gathered press seemed more interested in his denial of alleged tax avoidance…


His vision was of a ‘proactive welfare state’:  “An active welfare system alone simply requires people to work.  A proactive Welfare State seeks to create those jobs and opportunities.  It is based on supportive conditionality and it requires up front investment.” 


This effectively means more active labour market policies, and an emphasis on lowering the barriers to work.  To this end, the Secretary of State argued that “universal childcare is the foundation of the Scandinavian welfare systems which progressives in the UK rightly aspire to.  In these countries support is both more generous and more conditional, where investment in people is the route to higher employment and lower child poverty.“


But as my colleague pointed out after the speech, the trade-off for this (in Scandinavia at least) is public acceptance of a higher level of personal taxation.  Whether the UK is ready to go down this road is certainly up for debate…


One other phrase that stuck in my mind during the speech was ‘supportive conditionality’.  The Secretary of State argued that welfare conditionality was necessary, but should be cushioned by a raft of supply and demand-side measures – matching “responsibilities to real power and opportunities.”  This is a re-balancing act that gets to the very heart of the relationship between citizen and state in all kinds of areas, not only welfare.     


Conditionality has always been a loaded phrase for those working in international and development politics.  So I was intrigued to see an article in World Politics Review (published the same day) on the new, relaxed ‘International Monetary Fund 2.0’. 


The article suggests that the IMF is “repositioning itself as a lender for crisis prevention more than crisis resolution. The fund (has) created a new lending instrument known as the Flexible Credit Line…aimed at reassuring international investors by injecting essentially condition-free equity into qualifying countries with strong records of macroeconomic performance.


A cynic would suggest the Fund is simply taking advantage of a captive new western market (or indeed serving the very countries that capitalise it), but, apparently, “conditionality reforms for lower-income countries are planned for release this summer.


Lessons from both Purnell and Strauss-Khan?  One is that conditionality can only work when responsibility and agency are shared.  There will generally be a sharp power imbalance between those who need welfare support, and those institutions who are delivering it – but the whole point is that this support should start to redress this imbalance, affording citizens (or even states) the means to demand more and better from themselves, or even leave the system altogether.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 9:43 am

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