25 June 2021

Strengths and Limits of Pro-poor Policies in Sub-Saharan Africa

In her PhD thesis, Roxana Elena Manea estimates the impacts of three pro-poor interventions implemented in South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania. She assesses the impact heterogeneity of these policies and their intended and unintended effects. This allows her to compile evidence on their strengths and limitations, with the aim of informing decision-making processes in relation to the implementation of such interventions.

Why did you choose to study pro-poor interventions in sub-Saharan Africa?

The topic of my dissertation came about as the result of my interest in studying African development. While there are many facets to this broad interest, I focused my attention on researching a sample of pro-poor policies and programmes in Southern and Eastern Africa – estimating their impacts, exploring their strengths, limitations as well as potential heterogeneities. I wanted to illustrate the complexity of pro-poor policies. For instance, their positive impacts can extend beyond the expected targeted outcomes. However, pro-poor policies are also at risk of creating negative, unintended consequences. Moreover, traditions, culture and history combine to create unique national and regional contexts that speak to the reach and effectiveness of pro-poor policies on the African continent. In this regard, I have specifically engaged with the long-lived effects of historical institutions. For example, I have researched South Africa’s housing inequality, which can be traced back to the racialised legislation of the apartheid regime, and Tanzania’s unequally distributed educational opportunities, which can also be linked to missionary and colonial activities in the country during the late 1800s and most of the 1900s.

Can you describe your research questions and methodology?

My aim is to estimate and scrutinise the effects of three interventions: housing subsidies in South Africa, school feeding programmes in Malawi and free primary education in Tanzania. The policy outcomes that I study range from inequality in housing conditions and crime in the case of South Africa, to enrolment and retention rates in Malawi, and finally to educational achievement and gender gaps in the Tanzanian case study. I use spatial analysis tools and pseudo-experimental methods such as differences-in-differences, instrumental variables and propensity score matching. I rely on census and survey data, as well as administrative sources of information and georeferenced historical information on public infrastructure.

What are your major findings?

I show that housing subsidies in South Africa mitigate inequality in terms of access to adequate housing. Surprisingly, the programme has also proved effective in reducing the incidence of violent crimes. However, it does not seem to impact property-related crimes. Moreover, my evaluation of school feeding programmes in Malawi argues that this intervention has a significant impact on educational outcomes, but only if it also intervenes to relax a binding food constraint. In addition, I show that school meals have been markedly more effective at attracting children into school for the first time than at keeping them in school. Finally, I compile evidence that the elimination of school fees in Tanzania has followed a similar pattern, as the policy has improved enrolment but left retention rates largely unaffected. In the latter case study, I have also documented strong gender heterogeneities. Females have benefited disproportionately, and those residing in districts with a history of relatively larger investments in education have been the greatest beneficiaries.

What could be the social and political implications of your thesis? 

I argue that pro-poor policies are indeed capable of achieving their intended goals; they are an effective tool in reducing inequalities between the rich and the poor, and males and females. However, policymakers must be aware of the potential impact heterogeneities to increase the effectiveness of pro-poor interventions and know when, where and for whom these interventions work best. Complementary measures may be required to address the limitations imposed by policy implementation designs, historical legacies or environmental factors, to cite only a few instances. Policymakers must be aware of unintended impacts, too. These can be positive. For instance, housing subsidies leading to lower levels of violent crime. Yet they can also be negative, such as the incentive created by school meals to enrol underage children in primary education, or the tendency of reforms to perpetuate historical legacies instead of eliminating the disparities that history may have created. Solutions exist, such as the construction of preschool facilities or targeted infrastructure developments.

What are you doing now in your postdoctoral life?

I am currently based in South Sudan, working as a field coordinator for the Development Impact Evaluation Group (DIME) at the World Bank. I support the implementation of several impact evaluations, including randomised control trials. The interventions whose impacts we seek to estimate are multidimensional, and they touch on education, livelihoods opportunities, access to water, sanitation and health services.

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Roxana Elena Manea defended her PhD thesis in Development Economics in April 2021. Associate Professor Yi Huang presided the committee, which included Professor Timothy Swanson and Associate Professor Martina Viarengo, thesis co-supervisors, and Professor Christelle Dumas, Department of Political Economy, University of Fribourg.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Manea, Roxana Elena. “Heterogeneous Impacts of Pro-poor Policies and Programmes in Southern and Eastern Africa.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.

Roxana’s PhD papers have also been published as working papers:

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: excerpt from a picture by Gonzalo Bell/