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Relative effectiveness of conditional and unconditional cash transfers for schooling outcomes in developing countries

Additional Info

  • Authors: Sarah Baird, Francisco H. G. Ferreira, Berk Ozler, Michael Woolcock
  • Published date: 2013-09-02
  • Coordinating group(s): Education, International Development
  • Type of document: Title, Protocol, Review, Plain language summary
  • See the full review:

About this systematic review

This Campbell systematic review assesses the effects of conditional and unconditional cash transfer programmes on education outcomes in low- and middle-income countries. The review summarizes findings from 35 studies.

What are the main results?

Both conditional and unconditional cash transfer programmes increase enrolment compared to no program. But they have at best a small effect on learning outcomes, although the evidence base on learning is small.

Cash transfers have a larger effect on enrolment if there are conditions that are strictly monitored and enforced. Programs that are explicitly conditional, monitor compliance and penalize non-compliance have substantively larger effects – increasing the odds of enrolment by 60% compared to less than 20% for programs with no conditions.


Increasing educational attainment around the world is one of the key aims of the Millennium Development Goals. Cash transfer programs, both conditional and unconditional, are a popular social protection tool in developing countries that aim, among other things, to improve education outcomes in developing countries. The debate over whether these programs should include conditions has been at the forefront of recent global policy discussions. This systematic review aims to complement the existing evidence on the effectiveness of these programs in improving schooling outcomes and help inform the debate surrounding the design of cash transfer programs.


Our main objective was to assess the relative effectiveness of conditional and unconditional cash transfers in improving enrollment, attendance and test scores in developing countries. Our secondary objective was to understand the role of different dimensions of the cash transfer programs, particularly the role of the intensity of conditions and the effects of priming (with respect to the importance of children’s schooling) in cash transfer programs.

Search strategy

Five main strategies were used to identify relevant reports: (1) Electronic searches of 37 international databases (concluded on 18 April 2012), (2) contacted researchers working in the area, (3) hand searched key journals, (4) reviewed websites of relevant organizations, and (5) given the year delay between the original search and the final edits of the review we updated our references with all new eligible references the study team was aware of as of 30 April 2013.

Selection criteria

To be eligible for this review, studies had to either assess the impact of a conditional cash transfer program (CCT), with at least one condition explicitly related to schooling, or evaluate an unconditional cash transfer program (UCT). The report had to include at least one quantifiable measure of enrollment, attendance or test scores. The report had to be published after 1997, utilize a randomized control trial or a quasi-experimental design, and take place in a developing country.

Data collection and analysis

A data extraction sheet was constructed to collect data on impacts and characteristics of the report and intervention. Enrollment and attendance were coded using odds ratios, while test scores were coded using standardized mean differences. Effect sizes were synthesized and summarized within and across reports to one effect size per outcome for each study. Given the heterogeneity of true effects in the population, analyses of effect sizes were estimated using random effects models. Moderator analysis was conducted with six additional variables.


The sample includes 75 reports, with data from 35 studies, including five UCTs, 26 CCTs, and four studies that directly compare CCTs to UCTs. Our findings suggest that both CCTs (Odds Ratio (OR) 1.41, 95% Confidence Interval (CI) 1.27-1.56) and UCTs (OR 1.23, 95% CI 1.08-1.41) have a significant effect on enrollment. These results indicate that CCTs increase the odds of a child being enrolled in school by 41% and UCTs increase the odds by 23%. We do not find a significant difference when comparing CCTs to UCTs (OR 1.15, 95% CI 0.94-1.42]. The binary categorization of these programs into CCT vs. UCT ignores the fact that there is a great deal of variation in the intensity of the conditionality. If we instead group the conditionality variable into three broader categories (i) no schooling conditions (intensity=1 or 2), (ii) some schooling conditions with no enforcement or monitoring (intensity=3 or 4) and (iii) explicit schooling conditions monitored and enforced (intensity=5 or 6) we find odds ratios as follows: 1.18 (95% CI 1.05-1.33), 1.25 (95% CI 1.10-1.42), and 1.60 (95% 1.37-1.88), respectively. The 95% CI for studies with no conditions and studies with conditions monitored and enforced do not overlap. Meta-regression indicates that outside of the intensity of the conditions imposed, none of the other measured design elements have a significant effect on moderating the overall effect size.

Authors’ conclusions

Our main finding is that both CCTs and UCTs improve the odds of being enrolled in and attending school compared to no cash transfer program. The effect sizes for enrollment and attendance are always larger for CCT programs compared to UCT programs but the difference is not significant. When programs are categorized as having no schooling conditions, having some conditions with minimal monitoring and enforcement, and having explicit conditions that are monitored and enforced, a much clearer pattern emerges. While interventions with no conditions or some conditions that are not monitored have some effect on enrollment rates (18-25% improvement in odds of being enrolled in school), programs that are explicitly conditional, monitor compliance and penalize non-compliance have substantively larger effects (60% improvement in odds of enrollment). Unlike enrollment and attendance, the effectiveness of cash transfer programs on improving test scores is small at best. More research is needed that looks at longer term outcomes such as test scores, as well as on evaluating UCTs more generally.

Other keywords: Lower- and middle-income countries (LMIC)

See the full review

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