Perhaps it seems culturally insensitive to scold the poor for indulging in festivals, cigarettes, alcohol, or sweets that make life more fun. Yet when resources are scarce, priorities are essential. Many African and Indian men now consider beer indispensable and their daughters' education a luxury. The service of a prostitute is deemed essential; a condom is a frill. If we're trying to figure out how to get more girls in school, or how to save more women from dying in childbirth, the simplest solution is to reallocate spending.
One way to do that is to put more money in the hands of women. One early pair of studies found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine, and housing, and consequently children are healthier.
In Ivory Coast, one study focused on the different crops that men and women grow for their private kitties: men grow coffee, cocoa, and pineapple, and women grow plantains, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables. Some years the "men's crops" have good harvests and the men are flush with cash; in other years it is the women who prosper. Money is to some extent shared. But even so, Professor Duflo found that when the men's crops flourish, the household spends more money on alcohol and tobacco. When the women have good crops, the households spend more money on food, particularly beef. Several other studies also suggest that women are more likely than men to invest scarce cash in education and small businesses.
In South Africa, one study examined the impact on child nutrition when the state pension system was extended to blacks after the collapse of apartheid. Suddenly many grandparents received a significant cash infusion (topping out at $3 per day, or twice the local median income). When the pensions went to grandfathers who cared for children, the extra cash had no impact on the children's height or weight. But when the pension went to a grandmother, there was a major impact. In particular, the granddaughters grew significantly in both height and weight, and such girls became taller and heavier than girls raised by grandfathers. That suggests that if one purpose of cash transfers is to improve the health of children, it's better to direct the transfers to women than to men.
Half a world away, in Indonesia, a woman continues to control economic assets that she brought into a marriage. A study found that if the wife has brought more resources into the marriage—and thus has more spending money afterward—then her children are healthier than those of families of equal wealth where the assets belong to the man. What matters to the children's well-being isn't so much the level of the family's wealth as whether it is controlled by the mother or by the father. As Duflo says:
When women command greater power, child health and nutrition improves. This suggests that policies seeking to increase women's welfare in case of divorce or to increase women's access to the labor market may impact outcomes within the household, in particular child health. … Increasing women's control over resources, even in the short run, will improve their say within the household, which will increase . . . child nutrition and health.
Excerpted from Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Copyright © 2009 by Nicholas D. Kristof. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.