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Five questions with Dr. Fidelia Dake on researching on impacts of cash transfers in Africa

30 Nov 2018
Five questions with Dr. Fidelia Dake on researching on impacts of cash transfers in Africa
How does a Ghanaian female scholar navigate social-protection research in Africa? Fidelia Dake is a Lecturer at the Regional Institute for Population Studies at the University of Ghana, and recently completed a research fellowship in UNICEF Innocenti with the Transfer Project. UNICEF Innocenti’s Amber Peterman sits down with Fidelia to chat about her fellowship experience and to discuss newly published research on cash transfers. 
  1. Thanks for speaking with me Fidelia. To start, can you tell us a little about your background, your research interests, and what originally motivated you to work on development issues?
My undergraduate studies at the University of Ghana was a combined Bachelor of Science in nutrition and food science with specialization in nutrition. However, I decided that I did not want to work in the laboratory, rather, I wanted to figure out how things worked in the real world. This is what motivated me to do my MPhil and Ph.D. in Population Studies, which I also completed at the University of Ghana. I did a lot of my research on social determinants of obesity, which led to a number of different opportunities, for example visiting scholarships at Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina. After I completed my Ph.D. in 2014, my first job was as a research fellow at the U. N. Economic Commission (ECA) for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This is where I really got into international development, working on myriad issues including gender inequalities, health financing, social protection, schooling, health and nutritional outcomes and how they affect people’s lives, particularly poor and vulnerable populations.
  1. The Transfer Project hosts early career African research fellows at Innocenti to generate evidence on effectiveness of cash transfer programmes. What initially attracted you to working with the Transfer Project and can you tell us about the fellowship experience?
I first heard about the fellowship while at a conference on Population and Development in Addis Ababa. I saw a call for applications for the Transfer Project advertising the fellowship, so I decided to apply. One thing that originally attracted me was the opportunity to work on impact evaluation. I had some background in methodology and theory from coursework, and also had some experience from working on social inequalities policies from ECA. The fellowship brought these together, with the opportunity to apply data to real world problems. I think it has been a really productive and fruitful partnership. Given that these skills are not the typical types of skills that are learned in our academic training, this is a great opportunity. In fact, I think that the fellowship should be expanded. For example, in addition to visiting Innocenti and working collaboratively on analysis and publication, fellows should also be able to learn the design and data collection phases of evaluation starting from the beginning. And, for those of us finishing up our fellowships, how can we continue collaborating?
  1. Your collaborative research with the Transfer Project was recently published—can you tell me about the study you undertook?
This study, which has just been published in Studies in Family Planning, is titled “Cash Transfers, Early Marriage and Fertility in Malawi and Zambia.” Basically, the study examines two unconditional Government cash transfer programmes to see if there was any impact on delayed pregnancy and marriage for both male and female youth. The youth we looked at were 14 to 21 years when the programmes started, and were followed for about three years in each case. Although they were not direct recipients of the cash transfers (which went to the household head), we were interested in knowing if there were effects on safe transitions to adulthood. At the end of the day, we do not find evidence of impacts on these outcomes. Nonetheless, I think the study is important to think about how to broaden the scope of domains that are typically looked at, and the pathways through which change can occur for young people. Most of the time, for social protection, the focus has been on adult women or young children, but data is not typically collected on adolescents and youth, so this is a missed opportunity.
  1. These results may be disappointing for advocates of cash transfers, however they contain important lessons. What are your main recommendations for future research and for programme implementers?
First and foremost, these cash transfers were not meant to impact safe transitions—they were general household support for poverty related objectives. So we cannot say that the cash was unsuccessful. In fact, we find that the programmes positively affected several key pathways, like education, through which improvements for young people may materialize over time. Yet, at least during the study, we see this is not enough to affect the transitions on partnership formation and pregnancy. For researchers, as I mentioned previously, we should try to get a more holistic understanding on how cash works when it enters the household. This includes who we collect data on. There should be a deliberate effort to collect information on adolescents, including their migration and movement as they make these transitions. This can be used to design interventions which could specifically target youth. For example, cash plus programmes, which provide complementary services or benefits to youth themselves in order to target certain outcomes, including reproductive outcomes and union formation.
...Our research should inform development — but this is not always the case, especially on the African continent, where there tends to be a divide between doing research and engaging directly with development programmes. I encourage young scholars to explore the intersection.
  1. One last question: As a female scholar working in a field which is still underrepresented by women, what advice do you have for young girls and women who aspire work in development?
I am currently a faculty member at the University of Ghana, and in addition to teaching, I also do research. I really enjoy working in international development, which as you say tends to be a really male-dominated field. I believe research should be done for more than research sake alone — it should be relevant and should impact people’s lives. So, I would encourage young girls and women to strive to do this and explore how they can improve other people’s lives through their research, which can be more fulfilling than just doing research for research sake. For example, if I can show that a small amount of (Ghanaian) cedis can improve people’s lives, I think that is very gratifying. This is important because our research should inform development — but this is not always the case, especially on the African continent, where there tends to be a divide between doing research and engaging directly with development programmes. I encourage young scholars to explore the intersection, even if they think they do not have the right experience at the outset. I have learned a lot in doing this and now have a better understanding of development issues. I would definitely recommend the fellowship to young scholars particularly females who aspire to work in international development.  
 UNICEF’s Office of Research—Innocenti has hosted six early-career African Researchers to collaborate on analysis of cash transfer programmes with the Social and Economic Policy Team and the Transfer Project. Read more about the fellowship and the capacity building objectives here. This fellowship is made possible with funding from the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) (2016-2020) and the Hewlett Foundation (2018-2020).