Improving the evaluation and efficacy of Conditional Cash Transfers in Latin America
Submitting InstitutionUniversity College London
Unit of AssessmentEconomics and Econometrics
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Education: Specialist Studies In Education
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Summary of the impact
Research conducted at UCL by Professor Orazio Attanasio and his direct
engagement with policymakers has been instrumental in the implementation,
design and evaluation of conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes to
stimulate the accumulation of human capital in Mexico and Colombia. The
research underpinned the design of an innovative pilot, which he also
evaluated, in two major cities, Puebla and Ecatepec, with a combined
population of around 4 million. In Colombia, an evaluation led by
Professor Attanasio led to improvements in and expansions of the CCT
programme, with ongoing benefits to 3 million households. The research
team also contributed to a child development programme that launched in
Peru in March 2013.
The Mexican conditional cash transfer (CCT) PROGRESA, launched in 1997,
was the first of a new generation of welfare programmes that have since
become one of the most popular forms of policy intervention in Latin
America and many other developing countries. CCT programmes transfer cash
to poor households if they comply with a set of conditions that typically
have to do with the accumulation of human capital, for instance sending
children to school or bringing them to health centres for growth and
development check-ups. The cash transfers are targeted at women.
Professor Orazio Attanasio (UCL Professor of Economics since 1995) has
conducted extensive research on both the Mexican and the Colombian
versions of this programme. This has included analyses of the impacts of
CCTs on a variety of outcomes in both countries, from school enrolment and
consumption to women's empowerment (see, for example, [d] and [e] in
section 3). In 2001, in collaboration with colleagues at UCL and the
Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), Attanasio began to evaluate the
Colombian version of the CCT programme, Familias en Accion.
From 2002 to 2008, Attanasio was part of an academic advisory group
assisting the Mexican government with the evaluation and redesign of its
CCT programme, PROGRESA, which they planned to expand to urban areas under
the new title of Oportunidades (launched 2003). As well as making
recommendations about the design of that urban expansion scheme, the group
designed and implemented its evaluation. In addition to the general design
of that evaluation, Attanasio was specifically responsible for evaluating
the effect of the transfer on household consumption and expenditure [d].
In [b], first circulated in 2001 and published in 2012 as an influential
and heavily cited article, Attanasio, in collaboration with Costas Meghir
(Professor at UCL until 2011) and Ana Santiago (a PhD student at UCL)
analysed the impact of PROGRESA. They combined the evaluation analysis
with the use of a structural model to address the issue of the programme's
An important feature of PROGRESA was the inclusion of a rigorous process
for evaluating its impacts, based on the allocation of its early
implementation to randomly chosen localities. In [a] and [b], Attanasio
used data collected from an evaluation survey to assess the programme's
impact. Moreover, they used that data to estimate a behavioural model of
education choices, which could be used not only to assess the impact of
the programme, but also to predict the effects of different
designs on student enrolment. As such, it could be used to revise and
refine existing programmes and devise new ones to maximise their
The research found that PROGRESA's impact was substantial for attendance
in high school, but close to zero for primary school, partly because
primary school enrolment was already very high. At the same time, however,
primary school grants constituted the most expensive component of the
programme. Attanasio advised that the programme's impact could be
increased by changing the structure of its grants. More specifically, he
recommended reducing (or abolishing) primary school grants to free up
resources to increase the amount of secondary school grants.
In 2001, with funding from the World Bank and the Inter-American
Development Bank (IADB), and in collaboration with a Colombian public
policy institute and a data collection firm, Attanasio designed and
directed an impact evaluation of the Colombian CCT programme, Familias en
Acción. Results presented in 2004 and 2006 showed that the programme had
impacts on children's nutritional status and secondary school enrolment
mainly in rural areas, while the effects in urban centres were more
limited. This led to the production of three reports for the Colombian
government, the World Bank and the IADB that were widely circulated among
policymakers. It also generated several academic papers on the impacts of
the CCT programme (on school enrolment [e] and other outcomes), as well as
other related programmes. These included a paper on community nurseries
written with M. Vera (lecturer at UCL) and V. DiMaro (doctoral student at
UCL) [c] which shows that the community nurseries had a positive impact on
children from the poorest families.
References to the research
[a] "Using randomized experiments and structural models for `scaling up'.
Evidence from the PROGRESA evaluation", (with C. Meghir and M. Székely), Annual
World Bank Conference on Development Economics, 2003, The World
Bank, Washington DC. 2003. Available upon request. First presented at the
prestigious ABCDE World Bank conference.
[b] "Education choices in Mexico: Using a structural model and a
randomized experiment to evaluate PROGRESA" (with C. Meghir and A.
Santiago), The Review of Economic Studies, January 2012, 79 (1):
37-66. DOI: 10.1093/restud/rdr015.
Top 5 economics journal; peer-reviewed; paper cited almost 200 times since
[c] "Community nurseries and the nutritional status of poor children.
Evidence from Colombia" (with V. di Maro and M. Vera-Hernandez), Economic
Journal, September 2013, 123(571): 1025-58. DOI: 10.1111/ecoj.12020.
High-quality peer-reviewed journal; the working paper version alone was
cited over 50 times.
[d] "The demand for food of poor urban Mexican households: Understanding
policy impacts using structural models" (with M. Angelucci) American
Economic Journal: Economic Policy, February 2013, 5(1): 146-78. DOI:
Top field journal, peer reviewed.
[e] "Children's education and Work in the Presence of a Conditional Cash
Transfer Program in Rural Colombia" (with E. Fitzsimons, A. Gomez, M. I.
Rodriguez, C. Meghir and A. Mesnard), Economic Development and
Cultural Change, January 2010, Vol. 58(2), 181-210. DOI: 10.1086/648188.
Top field journal, peer reviewed.
Details of the impact
Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes have been hailed as highly
effective in Mexico and many other countries in Latin America and around
the world, where they have been instrumental in reducing poverty and
improving social indicators for many poor households. They have also been
widely studied by academic researchers, in part because of the
availability of rich data collected to evaluate them. Professor Attanasio
has been a major contributor to both policy and academic debate about such
programmes; as a result, he and his research have played an important role
in the development and design of CCTs benefiting millions of people in
Examples of the impacts of Attanasio's research on individual CCT
programmes in Latin America are described below; the broader significance
of his work, however, is suggested by its citation more than 50 times in
the 2009 World Bank Policy Research report, Conditional Cash
Transfers: Reducing Present and Future Poverty. This influential
report shaped the World Bank's policy on providing US$ 2.4 billion in
lending to scale up and start CCT operations in 2009 alone [1, 2].
Reshaping Oportunidades (Mexico): PROGRESA, which was renamed
Oportunidades in 2003 when it was expanded to urban areas, is one of the
most successful cash transfer programmes in Latin America and a key
instrument of Mexican social policy. The programme now has over 20 million
beneficiaries and is widely seen as an effective method of reducing
poverty (especially in rural Mexico), increasing enrolment in secondary
school, improving the nutritional status of children and empowering women
living in poor households.
Between 2002 and 2008, Attanasio's work as a member of the advisory board
supporting the evaluation of Oportunidades by the Government of Mexico
(see [a] [b] and [d]) allowed him to recommend a set of changes which, he
argued, would maximise the benefits of conditional cash transfers. In 2009
the Mexican government followed this advice in its expansion of the
programme to the cities of Puebla and Ecatepec. In particular, it drew on
Attanasio's research to pilot a revised grant structure abolishing primary
school grants and increasing those supporting secondary school attendance
. These changes were introduced in Puebla and Ecatepec, each of which
has over 2 million inhabitants, many of whom live in poverty. Since the
evaluation had revealed relatively small impacts of the existing programme
on school enrolment in urban areas, it was particularly salient to
redesign the programme in this way before it was rolled out in these
Two versions of the programme, revised to reflect findings and
recommendations in [a] and [b], were piloted in Puebla and Ecatepec
between 2008 and 2011, alongside a traditional version of the programme.
Both of the alternative versions eliminated primary school grants and
increased secondary school grants; in one version, however, a further
increase in school grants was triggered by academic performance meeting
certain minimum standards. New families registered into the CCT in these
cities were randomly allocated either to one of these two new versions, or
to the traditional version of the programme. In January 2008, Professor
Attanasio was invited by the Mexican government and the IADB to advise on
the design of this experiment, and to direct its evaluation, which the
IADB partly financed; he did so between 2008 and 2010.
In 2008, of the 35,000 households included in the programme in Puebla and
Ecatepec, about 9,000 were included in the experiment. Of these, a control
group of around 3,000 were assigned to the original programme and 6,000 to
the two new versions. The evaluation found that the new grant structure —
which added about 15% to the traditional secondary school grant —
increased the attendance of girls in Ecatepec (but not Puebla) by about
8%. The results of the study were presented in a report delivered to the
IADB and the Mexican government in 2011.
The results of the evaluation prompted a significant change in and
benefit to the Mexican government's approach to Oportunidades ,
particularly in terms of enhancing understanding of those modifications to
the programme that would improve secondary school attendance without
significant extra cost . Research was the main reason behind the
Mexican government's decision in subsequent years to reshape school
assistance programmes . A change in government at the end of 2011
delayed the implementation of these modifications for political reasons,
but by mid-2013 Attanasio's findings were again being studied and
considered by the new Oportunidades administration to inform planned
changes throughout Mexico. This is demonstrated by the fact that in July
2013 the IADB requested Attanasio's advice on forthcoming changes to the
programme. He was invited to meet and advise the new administration on the
design and evaluation of all changes to Oportunidades between 2014 and
Expansion of Familias in Acciones (Colombia): Between 2004 and
2006 Attanasio presented the results of his evaluation of the Colombian
CCT programme, Familias en Accion through a series of briefings for
policymakers [c, d, e] and officers from the World Bank and IADB. At that
time, the Colombian government was thinking of closing down Hogares
Comunitarios (HC), a large community nursery programme reaching 1 million
children, to finance the possible expansion of Familas en Accion. The
evaluation conducted by Attanasio and his team had also considered the
impacts of HC [d], finding that it had positive effects on the nutritional
status of the poorest young children. Attanasio's research was key in
ensuring that, during its expansion phase, the project´s design followed
evidence-based best practices and included a solid impact evaluation
In 2005, and again in 2007, the Colombian government drew explicitly on
Attanasio's evaluation to inform its expansion of Familias en Accion .
These successive expansions made Familias en Accion the country's largest
welfare programme throughout the impact census period. In 2008 the
programme was piloted in Bogota, where the government experimented with
different grant structures, some of which were inspired by the advice
given in Attanasio and his co-authors' reports. Although these expansions
took place before the start of the impact period, the benefits are both
ongoing and substantial for the 3 million households affected by them .
In 2009 Professor Attanasio's close engagement with the Familias en
Accion programme led to an important collaborative project (funded by the
ESRC, the IADB, the World Bank and DfID to a total of about £1 million)
piloting an 18-month stimulation and nutrition intervention to foster
cognitive development in young children in Colombia. The intervention was
tested in 96 small towns, each with 5,000-50,000 inhabitants, and targeted
children aged 12-24 months. Part of its novelty lay in its delivery by
community women who acted as representatives of Familas en Accion. The
intervention, which was significantly underpinned by the collaboration
with Attanasio, demonstrated a remarkable impact on children's cognitive
and language development. As well as benefiting the children involved in
it (who showed cognition and language improvements of about 25% of a
standard deviation of the score), the project increased awareness of the
importance of child development, and of the pivotal role that mothers and
the immediate family could play in promoting that, even when financial
resources are limited . The project was awarded a prize for outstanding
international impact at the ESRC Celebrating Impact Awards 2013.
This pilot project also made significant contributions to policy
discussion, debate and formulation both in Colombia and more widely,
including through two large events organised by the research team to
disseminate its findings among decision-makers around the world. The
first, held in Bogota on 26 March 2012 and co-organised with the IADB, was
attended by Colombian policymakers, practitioners and researchers who had
the opportunity to discuss the lessons learned from the Familias en Accion
example . The second was a conference on `Early Childhood Development
and Human Capital Accumulation', held in London on 25-26 June 2012.
Co-organised with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation
(3IE), this academic conference included a high level of participation by
practitioners, donors, and government officials from all over the world,
who discussed how this cutting-edge research could be applied to their own
national contexts . Professor Attanasio has also presented the
project's results in a number of other forums, e.g. a high-profile
conference at the National Academy of Sciences (March 2013) and a webinar
for the van Leer foundation (May 2013). Written summaries of the project
and its preliminary findings were widely disseminated, generating
considerable attention amongst policymakers within and beyond Colombia.
This led, for example, in early 2013 to a technical assistance
collaboration with the Peruvian Government, facilitated by the IADB.
Drawing on their experience and the results of the research conducted in
Colombia, the research team has since supported the Peruvian Government in
the design of a comparable home visiting programme targeting children 0-3
years old, which is a fundamental component of their wider early childhood
development strategy (Cuna Más) . The programme was launched on 24
March 2013, and will eventually reach millions of poor children in Peru.
Sources to corroborate the impact
 Attanasio's work is cited more than 50 times in the 2009 World Bank
Policy Research report "Conditional cash transfers: Reducing present and
future poverty", available at http://bit.ly/1dzXvNd.
Professor Attanasio is also cited in the report's acknowledgements (p.
 World Bank funding for CCTs in 2009: http://bit.ly/1fyrjuY.
 Confirmed in a statement provided by the then director of evaluation
at Oportunidades (now at the World Bank), and available on request.
 The IADB document about the grant provided to the Mexican government
to finance this pilot is available on request.
 A sample email from the Coordinator at Oportunidades soliciting
Attanasio's input is available on request.
 Attanasio's research is cited and his direction of the evaluation
design of the Familias en Acion programme acknowledged in the
Colombian National Department of Planning report Impactos de largo
plazo del programa Familias en Accion en municipios de menos de 100mil
habitants en los aspectose claves del desarrollo del capital humano
(June 2012): http://bit.ly/15XYHm2
esp. p. 2.
 Results and impacts of the intervention are described in the end of
project report submitted to the ESRC: Fitzsimons et al. "Early Childhood
Development: Identifying Successful Interventions and the Mechanisms
Behind Them", available at http://bit.ly/1bEtH2f.
 Bogota conference programme: http://bit.ly/18gCMx4.
 London conference programme: http://bit.ly/1dsDXLK.
 Confirmed in a statement provided by the former task manager for
Oportunidades and Familias en Accion of the IADB and available on request.