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Unjust Conditions

Women's Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer Programs

Tara Patricia Cookson (Author)

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Unjust Conditions follows the lives and labors of poor mothers in rural Peru, richly documenting the ordeals they face to participate in mainstream poverty alleviation programs. Championed by behavioral economists and the World Bank, conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs are praised as efficient mechanisms for changing poor people's behavior. While rooted in good intentions and dripping with the rhetoric of social inclusion, CCT programs' successes ring hollow, based solely on metrics for children’s attendance at school and health appointments. Looking beyond these statistics reveals a host of hidden costs for the mothers who meet the conditions. With a poignant voice and keen focus on ethnographic research, Tara Patricia Cookson turns the reader’s gaze to women’s care work in landscapes of grossly inadequate state investment, cleverly drawing out the tensions between social inclusion and conditionality.
Tara Patricia Cookson is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and the founder of Ladysmith, a women’s equality venture. Her research on gender, international development, and social justice has been published in a variety of public and policy outlets as well as in academic journals such as Antipode
"This is an outstanding book—a stunning indictment of expert schemes that overlook lived realities in order to conjure the appearance of success. Questioning the assumption that poor mothers need the 'nudge' of incentives to care properly for their children, it exposes conditionality's perverse effects. Lucid, incisive, and compelling—bravo!"—Tania Murray Li, Professor of Anthropology, University of Toronto

"Among the many qualitative studies of the advantages and disadvantages of conditional cash transfer programs, Tara Patricia Cookson´s Unjust Conditions stands out as a genuine, major contribution addressing important blind spots frequently neglected in this debate. A must-read for scholars, activists and policymakers committed to combating poverty and gender asymmetries."— Lena Lavinas, Professor of Welfare Economics at the Institute of Economics, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

"Tara Patricia Cookson’s ethnographic research gives voice to the women who are intended beneficiaries living with the unjust 'shadow conditions' imposed by conditional cash transfers. This book poses compelling questions about identity, power, wealth, and justice and challenges us to take the 'time to listen… and identify … possibilities for meaningful change.'"—Martha Choe, former Chief Adminstrative Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

"Conditional cash transfers have been evaluated by sophisticated statistical methods that ignore moral issues. This book adds to the critique of conditionality and those overhyped evaluative methods. It also adds to the demand that the standard concept of work be radically changed so that care work is given its proper recognition."—Guy Standing, author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

“In this much-needed ethnography of the impact that conditionality has on the recipients of cash transfers, Cookson shows the importance of looking beyond the statistics of short-term poverty reduction to shed light on the hidden and unintended effects of conditional cash transfers on people’s lives and how these undermine long-term social change.”—Jelke Boesten, author of Intersecting Inequalities: Women and Social Policy in Peru and Sexual Violence in War and Peace: Gender and Post-conflict Justice in Peru 

"Cookson’s book critiques conditional cash transfers through the tripartite lens of care, power, and geography to reveal the hidden costs of these policies in the enforcement of ‘shadow conditions’ implicit in compliance. Unjust Conditions reveals how CCTs consolidate a post-welfare world in which a redistributive politics of unconditional cash transfers is silenced as a viable alternative in global development debates."—Victoria Lawson, Professor of Geography, University of Washington 

"By focusing on poor mothers’ unpaid care work, this compelling institutional ethnography reveals the 'coercive power of incentives' undergirding human development policy. The Peruvian state burdens its most marginalized citizens with responsibilities without providing necessary resources. Delving below rosy outcome data through a blend of theory and thick description, Cookson convincingly demonstrates how the globally popular conditional cash transfer policy relies upon, rather than challenges, deep-seated relations of power"—Elisabeth Jay Friedman, Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies, University of San Francisco

“Cookson’s book brings us to the heart of the workings of contemporary social assistance. Through fine ethnographic observation, she explores the perverse effects of conditional cash transfer program conditionalities on poor women, such as greater burden of unpaid work, gender and racial discrimination, and 'shadow conditions' imposed by civil servants. This major contribution reveals how inequality is reproduced through the web of social relations these programs create.”—Stéphanie Rousseau, Professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú

 "Cookson’s book, with its focus on Peru’s anti-poverty program Juntos is a most welcome contribution to our understanding of the social relations involved in cash transfer programs. A product of ethnographic fieldwork in the Andean region of Peru, it casts important light on how the Juntos program works on the ground and shows what onerous demands its conditionalities can place on both beneficiaries and poorly paid social workers, and what class and ethnic tensions and assumptions about women are called into play by these interventions. This book has some important lessons for policymakers and scholars alike and joins the ongoing debates over how to improve the design and implementation of these programs."—Maxine Molyneux,  author of The Social and Political Potential of Cash Transfers

"Unjust Conditions is a book written for exactly these times, as we collectively demand an end to violence against women in all its forms. Situated at the intersections of feminism, aid, human rights, Tara PatriciaCookson takes us on a journey to find out the truth about conditional aid. She introduces us to women who shine a light on outdated aid policies and debunks gendered myths underpinning aid conditionality."—Jane Barry, activist and author of What's the Point of Revolution if We Can't Dance? and Rising up in Response: Women's Rights Activism in Conflict

"With her extensive ethnographic research, laced with feminist theory, Tara Cookson takes a hard look at the Peruvian CCT program, Juntos, from the perspective of the low-income women it targets. Unjust Conditions offers a groundbreaking account of why the conditionalities aimed at changing women’s behavior are not only onerous, but also misplaced and unjust, when what needs addressing are the constraints within which women care for their families. If there was a need for demonstrating the value of ‘slow research’ for clear policy thinking and informed practice, Cookson provides a powerful and compelling proof."—Shahra Razavi, Chief of Research and Data at UN Women

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