The Politics of the diffusion of Conditional Cash Transfers in Latin America

Politics and Economy

Presidents in Latin America

In the first decade of the 21st century Latin America has experienced two important transformations. The political scenario of the region has been marked by the rise to power of Leftist presidential candidates in various Latin American countries. Similarly, the region has experienced the emergence and rapid expansion of social assistance programmes or anti-poverty transfer programmes that are commonly known as Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs).

CCTs and the Latin American Left

Similar characteristics have been identified to relate the diffusion of CCTs and the emergence of Left governments in LAC. First, they were both originated in the second half of the 1990’s. The wave of Leftists governments began with the election of Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela in 1998. On the other hand, it is recorded that CCTs programmes were originated as a municipal level programme named Bolsa Escola in Brazil in 1995 and at the national level with the Mexican programme Progresa created in 1997 (Sewall, 2008). Second, these transformations are deeply embedded in the inequality of the region. CCTs emerge as social programmes intended to directly address the problem of poverty and inequality given the fiscal incapacity of Latin American countries to establish welfare systems due to the high level of informality on the labour markets. Finally, a third characteristic is that the popularity of CCTs has coincided with the notorious “turn to the left” of Latin America. Researchers have used terms such as “New-Left”, "Leftist Populism” or “Pink tide” to refer to the political shift towards left governments in LAC. The election of Chavez was followed by Ricardo Lagos in Chile (2000), Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil (2002), Nestor Kirchner in Argentina (2003), Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay (2004), Evo Morales in Bolivia (2005) Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (2006), Rafael Correa in Ecuador (2006), Fernando Lugo in Paraguay (2008) and Mauricio Funes in El Salvador (2009) (Levitsky and Roberts, 2011). The diffusion of CCTs has been remarkable. Nineteen out of twenty-three countries in Latin America has adopted a CCTs in the last fifteen years (Sugiyama, 2011).

Qualitative analysis

In order to analyze if the diffusion of CCTs was shaped by the emergence of "New Left" governments in Latin America three different policy diffusion waves were identified. The first wave of CCTs adoption in Latin America, from 1995 to 2000, was mainly led by Centre and Centre- Right ideological leaning presidents (Brazil: Fernando Henrique Cardoso; Honduras: Carlos Roberto Flores; Mexico: Ernesto Zedillo; Colombia: Andres Pastrana; Costa Rica: Miguel Rodriguez; Nicaragua: Arnoldo Aleman). The Second Wave represents the “turn to the left” of CCTs adoption, from 2001-2004 Centre-left and Left governments adopted CCT’s (Jamaica: Percival Patterson; Chile: Ricardo Lagos; Ecuador: Lucio Gutierrez; Argentina: Nestor Kirchner). Finally, the Third wave from 2005-2008 represents the diffusion of CCTs through the entire ideological spectrum (Bolivia: Evo Morales, Uruguay: Tabare Vasquez; Dominican Republic: Leonel Fernandez; Peru: Alejandro Toledo; Paraguay: Nicanor Duarte; El Salvador: Antonio Saca; Trinidad and Tobago: Patrick Manning; Panama: Martin Torrijos; Guatemala: Alvaro Colom).

Also, an analysis of policy diffusion was made using a modified version of the Dolowitz and Marsh (2000) framework to carry on a comparative analysis of the adoption of the CCTs based on three main questions: why actors got involved in the transfers, who these actors where and from where are these policy lessons drawn. Data from Sugiyama's (2011) study on CCTs adoption, along with the features of the domestic conditions at the time CCTs were adopted, were used in the qualitative analysis. Social assistance programmes were classified as pure income transfers, income transfers combined with asset accumulation and protection and integrated antipoverty programmes (Barrientos and Pellissery, 2013). These three different types of social assistance programmes differ in their vision of the causes of poverty: "poverty as a lack of income, poverty as deficiencies in income and assets; and poverty as multidimensional deprivation", respectively (Barrientos, 2013a:7).

Main findings

In the analysis the “New Left” is comprised of the Centre-Left and Left governments. In analysing the adoption of CCTs by Leftist forces in Jamaica, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama and Guatemala no substantial features will lead to demonstrating that the diffusion of CCTs were shaped by the rising of Leftist government to power. However, in the analysis made in the policy transfer framework it is perceived that the understanding of poverty between the Left and Right ideological leaning may make a difference.

In this analysis it was identified that most of the Leftists governments (Chile, Panama, Argentina and Uruguay) included social assistance programmes identified as integrated anti-poverty programmes. In the case of the Centre to Right governments, they are all income transfer programmes. Based on Barrientos (2013a), the characteristics of the type of programmes governments are adopting demonstrate Leftist governments define poverty as multidimensional deprivation and Right governments define it as deficiencies in income and assets. This definition of poverty as multidimensional deprivation may explain why Leftists governments were all characterised by adopting programmes that merge programmes that already exist into a new scheme. It might be understood as an attempt to unify different programmes that tackle different dimensions of poverty into one multidimensional scheme. They also share a mixed motivation that can be identified by the fact that they all implemented programmes assisted by International Organisations. However, given the limited programmes considered by country, it will be wrong to validate this finding without including other social assistance programmes. Consequently, the perceived differentiation in the definition of poverty do not have incidence in the shaping of the diffusion of CCTs.


More than a coincidence in time, there is no other substantial evidence that shows characteristics that can be labelled under a specific ideological leaning of the president that adopted the CCT. Therefore, from the analysis it is inferred that the programmatic importance of redistributive policies is not exclusively of Left leaning countries. This demonstrates that these programmes have been able to face the strong political changes in the region during the last decade, becoming a successful development trend.

* This blog post is based on the Dissertation submitted to The University of Manchester to obtain the degree of Master of Arts in International Development: Politics and Governance, September 2013. A modified version of it is available at:


Barrientos, A., 2013. Social Assistance in Developing Countries, First edition. ed. Cambridge University Press.

Barrientos, A., Pellissery, S. (2013) Expansion of Social Assistance: Does Politics Matter?, Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre, Working Ppaper No. 09, pp 47–54.

Dolowitz, D.P., Marsh, D. (2000) Learning from Abroad: The Role of Policy Transfer in Contemporary Policy-Making, Governance, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp. 5–23.

Levitsky, S., Roberts, K.M. (2011) The Resurgence of the Latin American Left, The John Hopkins University Press United States.

Sewall, R.G. (2008) Conditional Cash Transfer Programs in Latin America, SAIS Review, Volume 28, Issue 2, pp. 175–187.

Sugiyama, N.B. (2011) The diffusion of Conditional Cash Transfer programs in the Americas, Global Social Policy, Volume 11, Issue2-3, pp. 250–278.

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