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Research Roundup (2008-2011): Human Development and Public Services

 worldHuman development and public service delivery are at the core of the World Bank’s strategy to improve people’s lives and support sustainable development. This research program spans education, health, social protection and labor, as well as governance issues affecting service delivery, and the effectiveness of development assistance. PDF Version (64 KB)


This research program continues to cover the full gamut of human development—education, health, labor markets, and social protection. It examines the performance of these sectors in terms of levels and inequalities in access, use, quality, and outcomes. It also examines the impacts of measures to improve performance aimed at households (such as conditional cash transfer and health insurance programs); service providers (including payment systems, legal institutions, and community monitoring mechanisms); policy makers and politicians; and donors (including factors affecting aid and aid’s impact on outcomes).

New “stylized facts”

Research using 84 Demographic Health Surveys [1] finds that – in contrast to child mortality – adult mortality in sub-Saharan Africa has been rising, with the increase heavily concentrated among males, and in countries most affected by HIV/AIDS. Related research [2] finds that – in contrast to what is often asserted – there is no consistent pattern in sub-Saharan African countries of HIV/AIDS prevalence across socioeconomic groups. However, one consistent pattern that does emerge is that remarried people have higher-than-average HIV prevalence [3]; these individuals form a large portion of the population, and typically outnumber the divorced, separated, and widowed – the groups that have hitherto been the focus of preventive efforts.

New research [4] documents high levels of ‘son preference’ in South Asia but also in eastern Europe and central Asia. The same research shows that better educated women in South Asia do not exhibit lower levels of son preference as manifested in continued childbearing after the birth of girls. Other research gives grounds for hope that the ‘daughter deficit’ in Asia may be declining: one paper [5] documents the reduction over time in the sex ratio imbalance in Korea, while another [6] finds an apparent peaking of the imbalance in China and India.

New research [7] challenges the view that populations – especially poor ones – underuse health services. It documents the high rates of utilization of and access to ambulatory care providers in India, even among the poor; often the doctors in question are not public ones, but rather private – often untrained. The bigger challenge, the research suggests, is raising the quality of care used, not its quantity. Here too the research comes up with surprises, with doctors in public clinics providing very poor quality care, with the better quality care being found in public hospitals and private clinics.

Despite the widespread agreement that they matter more for economic growth than school enrollment, there is a shortage of data for developing countries on cognitive skills. New research [8] highlights the huge variation within India in mathematics achievement; only South Africa records such a large variation. The worst-performing five percent of children in Orissa and Rajasthan fare badly by international standards, but the best-performing children fare well by international standards.

Household behaviors, HD outcomes, risk and shocks

Unsurprisingly, much of the work on households during the last couple of years has concerned economics shocks. Several papers look at their effects on households. One [9], using a large data set of 1.7 million births in 59 developing countries, finds a large, negative association between per capita GDP and infant mortality, with female mortality being more sensitive than male mortality to negative economic shocks. Another [10] explores the psychological impacts of the 1997 Indonesian financial crisis. The study finds substantial increases in several dimensions of psychological distress among men and women across the age distribution, with especially pronounced impacts among vulnerable groups, including those with low education, the rural landless, urban residents, and those in provinces most affected by the crisis. Tellingly, the study finds that elevated psychological distress persisted even after the economy returned to pre-crisis levels. In contrast, another study [11] finds that while the labor market effects of the recent crisis in China were large, they were short-lived, with half of the 49 million workers laid off being rehired within six months.

How to cushion the effects of shocks and reduce risk? Several publications examine how public programs can protect children’s nutrition. One [12] provides an overview of the key issues. Another [13] documents the efforts in Indonesia in the 1997-98 crisis; exploiting the differential exposure across communities and children, the paper estimates that the program improved the nutritional status of children 12-24 months of age at the time of the survey, and helped avoid problems of severe malnutrition among young children. Another [14] compares two school-feeding schemes in Burkina Faso, while another [15] analyzes the impacts of a program in Laos; the studies found mixed impacts on nutrition and school enrollment.

Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs continue to be a much-discussed policy instrument to raise levels of school enrollment and use of preventive care among the chronically poor, as well as to protect vulnerable households at times of crisis. 2009 saw the publication of widely-cited 2009 Policy Research Report [16] that concluded that CCT programs have reduced short-term poverty, and increased enrollment in education and use of health services, but have had only very modest impacts on education and health outcomes.

Subsequent Bank research has been broadly consistent with these findings. A scholarship program in Cambodia increased attendance by approximately 25 percentage points among the target population (poor households) [17]. But research also illustrates the limits to CCT impacts. Eighteen months after the scholarships were awarded in Cambodia, the recipient children did no better on mathematics and vocabulary tests than they would have done in the absence of the program; self-selection by lower-ability students into school as a result of the program appears to explain the lack of the program’s impact on test scores [18].

Recent research throws up other interesting findings. Unsurprisingly, transfers have been found to be subject to diminishing returns: these were evident in the Cambodia program even though the transfers in the program are equivalent on average to only 3 percent of the consumption of the median recipient household [19]. CCT programs can have beneficial effects on outcomes other than those that are the focus of the program: for example, a CCT program aimed at keeping young Malawian women in school led to significant declines in early marriage, teenage pregnancy, and self-reported sexual activity among program beneficiaries after just one year of program implementation [20].

Expanding formal health insurance to groups currently covered through tax-funded public facilities continues to be a widely-discussed policy in the developing world. Research from around the Bank points to mixed results. In some countries, such as China [21], impacts on utilization were found but none were found on out-of-pocket spending. The opposite has been found in other countries, including Vietnam [22]. The shift in east Europe and central Asia during the 1990s from tax-financed health ‘insurance’ to the Bismarckian contributory employment-based social health insurance model apparently led to higher rates of spending and utilization of hospital care, but did not lead to lower rates of mortality from conditions amenable to medical care [23].

Several papers shed light on the circumstances and vulnerability of the elderly, especially in countries like China where internal migration of younger workers has increased but pension programs are still in their infancy. One [24] shows how the family continues to be an important source of support for the rural elderly, particularly the rural elderly over 70 years of age. It also shows that while the evidence on net-financial transfers suggests that elderly with migrant children will receive similar levels of financial transfers as those without migrant children, the predicted variance associated with these transfers implies a higher risk that elderly who have migrant children could fall into poverty.

Another paper [25] examines the employment patterns of China's over-45 population and, for perspective, places them in the context of work and retirement patterns in Indonesia, Korea, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The paper compares workers in the formal urban labor market, under which employees receive generous pensions and face mandatory retirement by age 60, and the informal – predominantly rural – labor market, where workers rely on family support in old age and have much longer working lives. Gender differences in age of exit from work are shown to be much greater in urban China than in rural areas, and also greater than observed in Korea and Indonesia. Gender differences also emerge in a paper [26] examining how the work, time allocation, and health of non-migrant women are affected by the out-migration of others in their household. The paper finds that the women left behind are doing more farm work than would have otherwise been the case. There is also evidence that this is a persistent effect, and not just temporary re-allocation.

Improving service delivery through stronger accountability

The 2004 World Development Report on service delivery [27] highlighted the often poor quality of services in developing countries, and developed a framework for improving performance based on stronger accountability relationships. The report stimulated research in this area, including in the Bank. A new book [28] reviews the recent research on schemes to improve accountability in schools; another [29] looks at the role of the judiciary in enforcing rights vis-à-vis service delivery.

The WDR’s ‘short leg’ of accountability emphasized the scope for households to improve provider performance directly, either through the power of their own choices or actions, or through collective action at the community level. Recent research [30] has explored the scope for citizens to hold frontline providers accountable through grievance and complaint processes. It  concludes that, overall, procedures for redressing grievances and complaints regarding basic service delivery are under-developed in many countries, but deserve further analysis, piloting, and support.

Does collective action offer greater promise? One paper [31] reports the results of a randomized control trail (RCT) of three interventions to encourage beneficiaries' participation in Indian schools: providing information on existing institutions, training community members in a testing tool for children, and training volunteers to hold remedial reading camps. The interventions had no impact on community involvement, teacher effort, or learning outcomes inside the school. However, in the third intervention, youth volunteered to teach camps, and children who attended substantially improved their reading skills.

The report’s ‘long leg’ of accountability emphasized the scope for improved accountability between (a) citizens and politicians / policy makers, and (b) politicians / policy makers and frontline providers.
Mass media is often argued to be one mechanism by which citizens can hold politicians accountable for service delivery. A recent paper [32], using unique data from Benin, finds higher literacy rates among school children in villages exposed to signals from a larger number of community radio stations. However, and in contrast to prior research, the authors find that this media effect does not operate through government accountability: government inputs into village schools and household knowledge of government education policies are no different in villages with greater access to community radio; instead, households with greater access are more likely to make financial investments in the education of their children. Another paper [33] sheds on the question of when politicians exert more effort on behalf of their constituents. The authors examine a unique public spending program that is proliferating across developing countries – the constituency development fund – and find that legislator effort is significantly lower in constituencies where voters are more attached to political parties or reserved for members of socially disadvantaged groups (lower castes).

Several papers have looked at the scope for policy makers to improve provider performance through the use of payment methods that link rewards to results. One paper [34] discusses the scope for improving school performance through the use of contract teachers. Debates over the merit of such teachers have been fierce. Proponents of contract teachers view them as a way to bypass what they see as underperforming regular teachers. Opponents argue that contract teachers are unfairly paid less than regular teachers for the same kind of work, are subject to arbitrary dismissals and harassment, and do not teach as well as regular teachers.

In the health sector, one study [35] examines the effects of the shift in Europe and central Asia away from paying hospitals through budgets toward linking payments to activity, either the number and types of services delivered (fee-for-service, or FFS), or the number and type of patients treated (patient-based payments, or PBP). The study found that FFS and PBP both increased national health spending, including private (i.e. out-of-pocket) spending, but had different effects on inpatient admissions (FFS increased them; PBP had no effect), and on average length of stay (FFS had no effect; PBP reduced it). Of the two methods, only PBP appeared to have had any beneficial effect on mortality from causes of death amenable to medical care, but the evidence was weak.

Aid and aid effectiveness

The economic crisis led to concerns about the supply of development assistance and the demand for loans from the developing world. Recent research [36] estimates how donor-country banking crises affected aid flows prior to the recent economic crisis. It finds that banking crises in donor countries were associated with a substantial additional fall in aid flows, beyond any income-related effects. Aid flows from crisis-affected countries are estimated to fall by an average of 20 to 25 percent (relative to the counterfactual) and bottom out only about a decade after the banking crisis hits. In addition, the results confirm that donor-country incomes are robustly related to per-capita aid flows, with an elasticity of about 3.

Another paper [37] explores countries’ graduation from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). Graduation is not an automatic consequence of reaching a particular income level, but rather is supposed to be based on a determination of whether the country has reached a level of institutional development and capital-market access that enables it to sustain its own development process without recourse to Bank funding. The paper finds that the observed correlates of IBRD graduation are generally consistent with the stated policy. Predicted probabilities generated by the model correspond closely to the actual graduation and de-graduation experiences of most countries (such as Korea and Trinidad and Tobago), and suggest that Hungary and Latvia may have graduated prematurely – a prediction consistent with their subsequent return to borrowing from the Bank in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Recent research also sheds light on various aspects of aid effectiveness. One paper [38] offers new measures of aid quality covering 38 bilateral and multilateral donors, comprising four coherently defined sub-indexes on aid selectivity, alignment, harmonization, and specialization. Compared with earlier indicators used in donor rankings, this indicator set is argued more comprehensive and representative of the range of donor practices addressed in the Paris Declaration, improving the validity, reliability, and robustness of rankings. Another paper [39] looks at the implications of aid fungibility for the evaluation of donor-funded development projects. Using the example of two concurrent World Bank health projects in Vietnam which were targeted on specific provinces, the paper derives impact estimates for different assumptions regarding fungibility and allowing for effects of aid on the productivity of government spending in nonproject provinces. The estimated impacts are highly insensitive to the assumed degree of fungibility, but highly sensitive to the assumed productivity effects.


Adam Wagstaff, Research Manager, Development Research Group, Development Economics Vice Presidency, World Bank, Washington, DC (


1. de Walque, D. and D. Filmer, Trends and socioeconomic gradients in adult mortality around the developing world. 2011, Washington, DC.: World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper #5716.

2. Beegle, K.G. and D.d. Walque, Demographic and Socioeconomic Patterns of HIV/AIDS Prevalence in Africa, in The Changing HIV/AIDS Landscape: Selected Papers for The World Bank's Agenda for Action in Africa, 2007-2011, E.L. Lule, R.M. Seifman, and A.C. David, Editors. 2009, World Bank: Washington; D.C. p. 81-104.

3. de Walque, D. and R. Kline, The association between remarriage and HIV infection: evidence from national HIV surveys in Africa. 2009, Washington, DC: World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper #5118.

4. Filmer, D., J. Friedman, and N. Schady, Development, modernization, and son preference in fertility decisions. 2008, Washington, DC: The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper #4716.

5. Chun, H. and M. Das Gupta, Gender discrimination in sex selective abortions and its transition in South Korea. Womens Studies International Forum, 2009. 32(2): p. 89-97.

6. Das Gupta, M., W. Chung, and S. Li, Evidence for an Incipient Decline in Numbers of Missing Girls in China and India. Population and Development Review, 2009. 35 (2): p. 401-16.

7. Das, J., The Quality of Medical Care in Low-Income Countries: From Providers to Markets. PLOS Medicine, 2011. 8(4): p. 1-2.

8. Das, J. and T. Zajonc, India Shining and Bharat Drowning: Comparing Two Indian States to the Worldwide Distribution in Mathematics Achievement. Journal of Development Economics, 2010. 92 (2): p. 175-87.

9. Baird, S., J. Friedman, and N. Schady, Aggregate Income Shocks and Infant Mortality in the Developing World. Review of Economics and Statistics, 2011. 93(3): p. 847-856.

10. Friedman, J. and D. Thomas, Psychological Health before, during, and after an Economic Crisis: Results from Indonesia, 1993-2000. World Bank Economic Review, 2009. 23(1): p. 57-76.

11. Huang, J., H. Zhi, Z. Huang, S. Rozelle, and J. Giles, The impact of the global financial crisis on off-farm employment and earnings in rural China. World Development, 2011. 39(5): p. 797-807.

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13. Giles, J. and E. Satriawan, Protecting child nutritional status in the aftermath of a financial crisis: evidence from Indonesia. 2010, Washington, DC: The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper #5471.

14. Kazianga, H., D. de Walque, and H. Alderman, Educational and health impacts of two school feeding schemes: evidence from a randomized trial in rural Burkina Faso. 2009, Washington, DC: The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper #4976.

15. Buttenheim, A., H. Alderman, and J. Friedman, Impact evaluation of school feeding programs in Lao PDR. 2011, Washington, DC: The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper #5518.

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17. Filmer, D. and N. Schady, Does More Cash in Conditional Cash Transfer Programs Always Lead to Larger Impacts on School Attendance? Journal of Development Economics, 2011. 96(1): p. 150-157.

18. Filmer, D. and N. Schady, School Enrollment, Selection and Test Scores. 2009, Washington, DC: World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper Series #4998.

19. Filmer, D. and N. Schady, Does More Cash in Conditional Cash Transfer Programs Always Lead to Larger Impacts on School Attendance? Journal of Development Economics, 2011. 96 1: p. 150-57.

20. Baird, S., E. Chirwa, C. McIntosh, and B. Ozler, The Short-Term Impacts of a Schooling Conditional Cash Transfer Program on the Sexual Behavior of Young Women. Health Economics, 2010. 19: p. 55-68.

21. Wagstaff, A., M. Lindelow, G. Jun, X. Ling, and Q. Juncheng, Extending Health Insurance to the Rural Population: An Impact Evaluation of China's New Cooperative Medical Scheme. Journal of Health Economics, 2009. 28(1): p. 1-19.

22. Wagstaff, A., Estimating Health Insurance Impacts under Unobserved Heterogeneity: The Case of Vietnam's Health Care Fund for the Poor. Health Economics, 2010. 19(2): p. 189-208.

23. Wagstaff, A. and R. Moreno-Serra, Europe and Central Asia's Great Post-communist Social Health Insurance Experiment: Aggregate Impacts on Health Sector Outcomes. Journal of Health Economics, 2009. 28(2): p.322-340.

24. Giles, J., D. Wang, and C. Zhao, Can China's rural elderly count on support from adult children? Implications of rural-to-urban migration. Journal of Population Ageing 2010. 3(3-4): p.183-204.

25. Giles, J., D. Wang, and W. Cai, The labor supply and retirement behavior of China's older workers and elderly in comparative perspective. 2011, The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper Series #5853.

26. Mu, R. and D. van de Walle, Left behind to farm? women's labor re-allocation in rural China. 2009, The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper Series #5107.

27. World Bank, World development report 2004: Making services work for poor people. 2003, Washington, D.C.: World Bank; Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

28. Bruns, B., D.P. Filmer, and H.A. Patrinos, Making Schools Work: New Evidence on Accountability Reforms. 2011, Washington, DC: World Bank.

29. Gauri, V. and D. Brinks, Courting Social Justice: Judicial Enforcement of Social and Economic Rights in the Developing World. 2008, New York: Cambridge University Press.

30. Gauri, V., Redressing grievances and complaints regarding basic service delivery. 2011, Washington, DC: The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper #5699.

31. Banerjee, A.V., R. Banerji, E. Duflo, R. Glennerster, and S. Khemani, Pitfalls of Participatory Programs: Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation in Education in India. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 2010. 2(1): p. 1-30.

32. Keefer, P. and S. Khemani, Mass media and public services: the effects of radio access on public education in Benin. 2011, Washington, DC: The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper #5559.

33. Keefer, P. and S. Khemani, When do legislators pass on 'pork'? The determinants of legislator utilization of a constituency development fund in India. 2009, Washington, DC: The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper #4929.

34. Robinson, N. and V. Gauri, Education, Labor Rights, and Incentives: Contract Teacher Cases in the Indian Courts. Comparative Law and Labour Policy Journal, 2011. 32 (4 ): p. 991-1022.

35. Moreno-Serra, R. and A. Wagstaff, System-wide impacts of hospital payment reforms: Evidence from Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Journal of Health Economics, 2010. 29(4): p. 585-602.

36. Dang, H.-A., S. Knack, and H. Rogers, International aid and financial crises in donor countries. 2009, Washington, DC: Policy Research Working Paper #5162.

37. Heckelman, J.C., S. Knack, and F.H. Rogers, Crossing the threshold: an analysis of IBRD graduation policy. 2011, Washington, DC: The World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper #5531.

38. Knack, S., F.H. Rogers, and N. Eubank, Aid Quality and Donor Rankings. World Development, 2011. 39(11): p. 1907-1917.

39. Wagstaff, A., Fungibility and the Impact of Development Assistance: Evidence from Vietnam's Health Sector. Journal of Development Economics, 2011. 94 1: p. 62-73.

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