Evidence Action Beta is currently pressure testing several evidence-based interventions to determine whether they are suitable for scale-up. One of these projects is 'No Lean Season' - a project to test seasonal income support for the very poorest in Bangladesh.

Seasonal hunger and income insecurity is a problem in many regions of the world for very poor people during the period between planting food crops and harvest time. Researchers working in northern Bangladesh identified a simple and effective solution that took advantage of the relative abundance of employment opportunities outside of the famine-prone north during this so-called 'lean season.'

They provided households a travel subsidy for work-migration during this time, allowing them to send a family member away to generate income that would otherwise not have been possible. This resulted in significant improvements in household welfare (including consumption and nutrition) during the 'lean season,' an effect that held even in subsequent years. Based on this evidence, we think that providing these travel subsidies is a promising way to avert the risk of seasonal insecurity and famine in areas where this is common.

Pressure-Testing No Lean Season  

We are investigating several critical questions to pressure-test the hypothesis that a well-timed travel grant may be a cost effective means of providing seasonal income support in Bangladesh and elsewhere. We are working in collaboration with Innovations for Poverty Action, the original research team, and our local partner, RDRS, in Rangpur, Bangladesh. We wanted to give an update on this work.

We began project activities in October, when we disbursed travel grants (valued at $13.5 per recipient) to eligible households in Lalmunirhat and Kurigram districts. We are working in 133 villages there. 95 of those villages are in  the treatment group (i.e. where eligible households were given travel grants) while 38 villages constitute the control group (i.e. where no travel grants were handed out). We offered travel money to a total of 3,800 people across the 95 villages.

Testing for Unintended Consequences

Part of pressure-testing ‘No Lean Season’ for the potential to scale up to many more people is to understand whether there would be unintended consequences, such as effects on local prices (including wages) due to the outflow of people with travel grants seeking work elsewhere and then remitting money home.

To understand these effects better, we varied the number of eligible households in a village who were given travel grants. Different proportions of the eligible population of a village received the grants, selected through a lottery.  Thus, in 48 treatment villages only 10% of eligible households received a travel grant, while in 46 treatment villages 50% of eligible households did. A lottery for eligible households allowed for a fair disbursement of limited funds, and for our study to provide  bias-free results.

The idea behind varying the percentages of households receiving the grants was to see whether larger numbers of emigrants would affect local prices (including wages), a substantial spillover that we want to make sure we fully understand.

In order to detect any local price effects, we began intensive survey work of households across all 133 villages in the middle of December, 2014. We are surveying 2,100 households once a week (we have conducted four rounds thus far) and are capturing information on household consumption and employment outcomes, along with information on the migrant member remittances.

An additional nuance to our survey work is administering the questionnaire to households in our treatment villages who were eligible for the travel grant but did not receive it (remember, grants were provided using a lottery to only a portion of the eligible households). By surveying these households in a treatment village, we hope to learn about any secondary or spillover effects of the intervention on those who did not receive the grant.

We are in the process of developing and testing our endline survey instrument which we intend to administer at the end of February, 2015. The endline survey will be a comprehensive assessment  that will allow us to further delve into the impacts of the migration, including changes in household resource allocation (for instance, did treatment households spend more on health and did they spend more equally on male and female needs) and the migrant’s experience (for instance, how did the migrant member fare? And did this experience change them in any way, positively or negatively?).

Our endline survey also intends to capture more long-term impacts of the program. The very first round of intervention was conducted during the 2008 lean season as part of the original study by Bryan, Chowdhury and Mobarak. This means that there are children who were very young (infants) at the time. We want to  track these individuals to see if there have been any lasting impacts in terms of their physical and cognitive development. This is important to assess because nutritional improvements in very early childhood have long-lasting effects on development and later life outcomes (including income). With our endline survey work, we will give ourselves a real chance to pick up some potentially positive (and exciting!) long term impacts that this simple intervention might be able to produce.   

What’s Next on the Path to Scale?

We will complete all rounds of the survey by the middle of February, 2015, and complete our endline survey by the middle of March, 2015, and will have basic results in hand by April 2015.  To take a project like this to scale, we need an evidence-based understanding of the potential pitfalls.  After we have results, we will seek input from experts in the field. Provided that we are green-lighting this, i.e. that there aren’t detrimental side-effects, we will develop a more comprehensive plan for scale-up in Bangladesh.

[EDITOR's NOTE: UPDATED 3/15/2014] But we are doing even more to understand whether No Lean Season can scale. With the pre-scale pressure testing in Bangladesh ending soon, we are exploring where else "No Lean Season" might work. Last year, we commissioned a short qualitative study in Malawi and Zambia on the potential for seasonal income support there. Our initial findings suggest that the intervention is not well suited for Malawi where there may not be a sufficient difference in employment opportunities between migration origin and destination locations. On the other hand, No Lean Season has promise in Zambia where local seasonal migration could help tackle the challenge of hunger. Over the course of the coming year we hope to explore the potential for seasonal income support in at least four other countries.