In 2001, the Colombian government initiated an experiment in poverty alleviation called Familias en Acción. This conditional cash transfer (CCT) program takes a novel approach to poverty reduction by addressing short- and long-term factors contributing to poverty. Though Colombia’s CCT program is just one of a wave of similar initiatives, its unique context and unexpected social effects, beyond the primary intentions of program designers, differentiate it from other such programs. Drawing on 200 interviews and focus group discussions which he conducted with academic experts, program beneficiaries and program administrators in three Colombian cities, the author finds that an unexpected and underappreciated component of Familias en Acción, the beneficiary meeting, has taken on a unique and meaningful role in the eyes of the program’s beneficiaries by contributing to the empowerment of beneficiary mothers through community-building. This is particularly important in Colombia, a country in which a 60-year-old violent conflict among guerrillas, paramilitaries, and government troops has shattered communities, plunged families into poverty, and distracted from social programs. Colombia is home to the second-largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, and its 3.5-5 million IDPs are among the country’s poorest citizens. For this population, Familias en Acción is more than just a welfare program: it is a means of rebuilding the social structures destroyed by displacement. While previous papers have examined and evaluated the program’s economic and human capital effects, this paper makes a unique contribution to an understanding of the community-building and empowerment effects of Familias en Acción.

Conditional Cash Transfers, Community, and Empowerment of Women in Colombia

When Familias en Acción, Colombia’s conditional cash transfer (CCT) program, debuted in 2001, it was well-received by beneficiaries. The “revolutionary” (El Tiempo Editorial Staff, 2007) program had a specific objective: to provide a small cash stipend to mothers as long as their children maintained regular school attendance and medical checkups.[1] One beneficiary, excited about the promise of the human capital-focused program, summarized the sentiments of thousands: “Finally the government remembered us poor people. Now I can buy my children school supplies and take my kids to the doctor” (El Tiempo Editorial Staff, 2001).

Enthusiasm was not limited to beneficiaries. Though the CCT concept was hatched independently in rural areas of Mexico and Brazil in the 1990s, the programs’ successes caught the eyes of economists and leaders throughout the region and around the world, particularly at the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank (Fiszbein et al., 2009). With the support of loans from these multilateral lending institutions, conditional cash transfer programs have grown and spread at an astounding rate. Today, CCT programs are present in virtually every Latin American country, as well as a handful of other developing countries on every continent; they have even been piloted in cities in the developed world, including New York City and Washington, D.C. (Fiszbein et al., 2009). With the global proliferation of CCT programs, evaluations have regularly endorsed their impact on health and education metrics (Glewwe & Kassouf, 2012); the graduation rate of urban high school-age Familias en Acción beneficiaries, for example, is 5.2 percentage points higher than that of their non-beneficiary peers (Attanasio, Battistin, Fitzsimons, & Vera-Hernandez, 2005).

Yet while evaluators have positively assessed Familias en Acción’s cash transfer and human capital development components, an under-studied element of the program is its indirect empowerment and support of marginalized women, particularly through self-help groups. Group meetings, initially designed simply to disseminate program information and logistics to beneficiaries, also provide a public forum for mothers to interact and work through common difficulties in a setting in which other community organization is limited. These meetings have also empowered some women to rise as local leaders and entrepreneurs where few other opportunities for leadership are available. Interviews for this study conducted in three Colombian cities suggest that municipal employees and beneficiaries of Familias en Acción alike actively focused on the community organizing aspects of their jobs.[2] As much a social policy framework as it is an economic development program, Familias en Acción thus becomes a case study in the realization of human rights.

This paper is divided into five sections. The first section situates the project of organizing the urban poor in the context of Colombia – the country with the world’s highest number of individuals displaced as a result of conflict (internally displaced persons – IDPs) (UNHCR, 2013). The second section examines the economic and social theories which underlie the program. The third section lays out the meeting requirements for women involved in Familias en Acción and the connection to displacement. The fourth section demonstrates the empowerment which beneficiary women experience through the program in their own words. Last, the conclusion identifies areas for future study.

[1] Familias en Acción’s mechanism is a small bimonthly stipend provided to beneficiary families whose poverty index falls below a cutoff, worth approximately $75 per month, contingent on their children’s maintenance of an 80% school attendance rate and compliance with medical requirements. In a vast majority of cases, the program transfers funds to mothers (the preferred route in Colombia and most other CCT programs worldwide), but when this is impossible, fathers can receive the stipend. The basis for selecting mothers as recipients is a large body of research finding that mothers’ goals and spending patterns are most in line with the desired program outcomes of improved health and education for the next generation; for more on the choice of mothers as recipients, see Fiszbein, Schady, & Ferreira, 2009.

[2] The research described in this article included 200 semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with administrators, beneficiaries, and academic experts in Bogotá, Cali and Cartagena from June-August 2012. Recruitment varied among subject pools. I contacted administrators and academics via a process of snowballing. I accessed beneficiaries through Familias en Acción’s employees, who provided information about my study to potential interviewees. To protect the privacy and anonymity of interviewees, this paper omits the names of interviewees and specific locations of individual interviews.