Boosting Patience for Healthier and Better-Educated Children in Malawi

As a Master’s student at the University of Zurich, I have had the unique opportunity to spend two years working at the Center for Child Wellbeing and Development as a research assistant, being involved in three ongoing field experiments in Malawi, Ivory Coast, and Brazil. I have been engaged in the project ‘Parents’ future-orientation and investments in Children’ in Malawi with Juliette Thibaud and Guilherme Lichand since it started in 2016. I have worked on a wide range of activities and travelled several times to Malawi to conduct pilot activities and focus groups with local households to learn more about the challenges and hardships they experience.

This project has been designed in collaboration with UNICEF Malawi, partly to respond to their programmatic needs, as they are seeking to increase the uptake of public services among the ultra-poor population. Indeed, the existing poverty reduction programs seem to be insufficient to durably lift people out of poverty, and recent research indicates that how poor parents make investment decisions involving their children—while rarely taken into account when designing poverty reduction programs—is of fundamental importance when it comes to investment in children’s human capital. Indeed, many decisions, such as whether to enrol a child into school, or how much to spend on preventive health care, imply that parents should pay an immediate cost while they would only benefit in the future. This research project aims at putting this aspect at the center of child development programs, acknowledging that one should also understand and take into account the socio-psychological aspects of poverty when designing programs.

In a first stage, the study documents whether parents make plans to invest in their children’s health and education in the future, but are tempted to reverse these plans when such future arises. To do so, we visit the villages three times, offering parents some small peanuts’ packages, and asking them how they would like to share them between them and their children, in the present and in the future. Any difference between the choice made in the first and the second visit, captures this plan reversal. Given the innovative nature of this experiment, we have extensively piloted it in the field, and we were surprised by the interest and participation of the locals, who often received us with enthusiasm in their villages and shared their thoughts and stories with us. However, we have also learned that conducting an experiment in remote Malawian areas can pose quite a number of challenges. For instance, survey instruments need to be designed in such a way as to be easily understood by the participants — who are often illiterate — and reaching rural villages that are only a few kilometers away can take a lot of time.

In a second stage of the study, the project estimates whether encouraging parents to take more future-oriented decisions would increase investments in children. To do so, we will invite the poorest Malawian households’ heads to attend workshops that have been designed to boost participants’ future-orientation by improving goal-setting, self-efficacy (the belief that you can influence future outcomes) and making the consequences of present actions more salient. This research will be the first one to assess whether those workshops can be effective in a developing country setting, and whether boosting parents’ future-orientation can translate into higher investments in children.

If parents invest more in their children’s health and education at a critical age, the impact of the interventions for the beneficiaries will be healthier, better-educated children, with benefits that will be transferred into adulthood. Moreover, if the intervention proves effective in increasing investment in children, it could be scaled-up and used to enhance the effectiveness of existing poverty reduction programs.

Stay tuned to learn more about the first results!

By Maite Deambrosi Date: December 2018