The Unnecessary Nudge: Education and Poverty Policy in a Cairo Slum†

Research paper by Heba Gowayed

Indexed on: 01 Mar '18Published on: 26 Feb '18Published in: Sociological Forum


Drawing on data collected from 2008 to 2013 in a low-income Cairo neighborhood, this article examines the impact of a poverty alleviation program, a conditional cash transfer (CCT) that attempted to incentivize poor mothers, through a direct cash transfer, to send their children to school. The program met its goal. The mothers did send their children to school. I argue that only observing this outcome of school access, however, black-boxes the causal pathway of how mothers sent their children to school in the Egyptian context, and how the program mattered. Public schools in Egypt are free on paper but expensive in practice due to an informal system of “private lesson” and “study group” fees imposed by teachers. Mothers had always managed this expense, using scarce gendered household resources, before, during, and after the program. Through ethnographic, interview, and survey data, this article shows that while the cash—transferred to the mothers and labeled for education—enabled the mothers to send their children to school, the program conditions were unnecessary. The mothers did not need to be nudged to send their children to school. This Egyptian case study has implications for the use of behavioral incentives and for the importance of qualitative methods to the study of policy impacts.