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Distribution Rules : Rules of Social Exchange

Rules of exchange governing both the kind of resources allocated and their amount seem to exist in all cultures (Foe and Foa, 1980). When an individual allocates resources to particular family members, the basis for the allocation decisions will affect what kind of family member (e.g. adolescent, mother, or father) receives more resources. These decisions are made within an informal system of rules governing exchange between individuals in social relationships.

Social psychologists have identified a number of allocation rules, and the conditions under which each is applied (Leventhal, 1980). For example, according to equity theorists, "human beings believe that rewards and punishments should be distributed in accordance with recipients' inputs or contributions" (Leventhal, 1980, p. 27). This school of thought suggests that all exchanges are based on a notion of a just reward for contribution; we might say, "equal pay for equal work." Several studies appear to reflect a contributions rule, based on income-earning. In Guatemala, the adult worker received more food than did the children (Flores et al., 1970). Workers ate a slightly higher proportion of the family's calories than non-workers, controlling for age and sex (Engle and Nieves, 1988). In the Philippines, food distribution tended to be greater to girls who were earning an income than to those who were not (Villasenor, 1982). Rosenzweig and Schultz (1982) calculated that girls who worked for income were more likely to survive than those who did not.

Another example of the effects of the contributions rule on food distribution is the frequently observed underfeeding of girls compared to boys. Sex differences in nutritional status, and probably in food distribution within the household, may be due to the perceived utility or the potential contribution of the children:

Differential feeding and care of male and female infants is based on the relative value of males and females in a society and the perceived long range utility of sons and daughters. In some societies, sons are expected to find urban jobs and send money home. In other societies where dowry and bride price are significant, this may influence the perceived value of children. In Nepal, for example, women's families must expend substantial amounts on dowries. (Safilios-Rothschild, 1980, cited in van Esterik, 1984, p. iii)

A parallel finding from African studies is that females apparently are favored in household resource distribution in areas where a high brideprice is paid; where no brideprice is paid or a dowry given, girls did not receive as large a share of the household's food. (Rogers, 1983, pp. 19-20)

Chen and co-workers (1981) found that malnutrition is markedly higher among girls than among boys in rural Bangladesh. Dietary surveys there showed that intra-household allocation of food is biased against girls and women. A review of the literature on the health implications of sex discrimination in childhood, commissioned by UNICEF and WHO (Ravindran, 1986), provides evidence that a strong preference for sons in many parts of the world, but especially in the Middle East and South Asia, leads to discrimination against daughters in the distribution of food inside the household. Some evidence from Latin America also demonstrates sex differences in nutritional status in childhood (Freirichs et al., 1981, in rural Bolivia; Powell and McGregor, 1985, in urban Jamaica; Johnson, 1987, in the Dominican Republic).

A third group of studies also illustrates a contributions rule. Scrimshaw (1982), SchepperHughes (1983), and McKee (1984) have described infanticide and under-investment in some children, which they believe indicates that when a child is not expected to be a longterm contributor to the household, fewer resources are directed toward that child. Consciously or unconsciously the family provides fewer of its resources to, or simply neglects the care of, some children while allocating more resources to other children and/or adults. The characteristics associated with the child in whom the family underinvests are: high birth order, female sex, short intergestational period, and, less frequently, sickliness, or other perceived characteristics whose value or desirability are culturally mediated, such as being a twin.

Equity theory (a contributions rule) would suggest that families will not allocate more resources to a needy or malnourished child, which is the assumption underlying targeted feeding programmes and may explain why they so often do not achieve their projected goals. The type of parental feeding promoted by these programmes is closer to a second type of exchange, one based on a "needs rule" (Leventhal, 1980). For example, it would imply that a mother would give her last bit of tortilla to a sickly infant rather than to a hungry older child. In order for a supplementary feeding programme to be effective in increasing the flow of food to an undernourished child, a pregnant woman, or a lactating mother, the needs rule must be applied rather than the contributions rule. How can one influence households to apply this rule if they do not already do so?

A third distribution rule which was spontaneously mentioned by Guatemalan women (Engle and Nieves, 1988) was equality: that each person should receive an equal share of the available food. If mothers applied this rule, younger and smaller children would receive relatively more than older and larger family members, a consequence that would follow logically from the practice of giving relatively equal-sized proportions to each person.

Which rule is applied depends on many factors, including the type of resource (e.g. education, food, or attention), the resource constraints, and the characteristics or values of the resource distributor. Harbert and Scandizzo (1982), in Chile, found that more educated mothers followed more equitable distribution rules. Although a person's value system (sense of fairness) determines his or her choice of rules, this choice may be influenced by extenuating circumstances (Leventhal, 1980). When resources are severely constrained, one is willing to forgo a sense of fairness. If a family is on the brink of starvation, for instance, normal rules may be replaced by a rule such as "justified selfinterest" ("I am starving and must eat").

Preliminary work in a periurban area of Guatemala, investigating the existence of explicit rules, suggests both that mothers did have such rules (e.g. equality, contributions), and that food was allocated accordingly. Mothers who reported that boys should receive more than girls actually gave their sons and husbands more food (Engle and Nieves, 1988). Those who said that food should be equally distributed gave children a relatively higher proportion of the food in comparison to the amount they allocated to adults. It was striking that the "needs rule," at least according to the health centre's definition of need (i.e. low weight-for-age), was not applied in the Guatemalan sample. Even though all 45 families were receiving supplementary food because a child aged one to five years was diagnosed as low weight-for-age, only 4 per cent of the mothers reported feeding the target child more for that reason. The calorie and protein intake of these children (per cent adequacy) was identical to those of their non-targeted siblings. Similarly, Johnson (1987) in the Dominican Republic found that women reported allocating food equally to boys and girls; yet morbidity and mortality rates were higher for girls. These examples clearly illustrate how crucial it is to understand distribution rules from the household's perspective.

These findings underscore the value of providing policy-makers with a framework within which to identify their own assumptions about distribution rules and to determine whether these are congruent with, or differ from, those of the target group. In designing programmes and projects, it is also vital to understand that not all members of a (homogeneous) cultural group follow the same allocation rules for the same type of resource.


Specific insights from psychology with respect to intra-household and individual factors impinging on allocative behaviour can be incorporated into a broader multidisciplinary framework based on resources and social systems within which allocation patterns for those resources are determined (fig 1). The framework can be used in determining appropriate variables to consider for programme evaluation and impact assessment.

Three kinds of resources are included (listed under "Time 1: Resources" in figure 1), corresponding roughly to economists' categories of resources: (1) land, material, and cash income; (2) time available for labour; and (3) individual skills, abilities, or human capital. These will not be discussed here; the reader is referred to Rosenzweig (this volume) and Behrman (this volume), for a detailed treatment of intra-household resource allocation within the economics framework.

How these economic resources are allocated within the household depends on the social and ecological context of the family and the social system in which it is embedded. Five social-system domains outlined by Triandis (1980) may influence the distribution of resources (listed under "Time 1: Social systems and allocation patterns" in figure 1). These include: (1) the ecological system: physical resources, environment; (2) the subsistence/production system: agriculture, fishing, industrial work; (3) the community (or socio-cultural) system: community-level institutions, norms, roles, beliefs about power, and values as they exist outside the individual; (4) the intra-household system: patterns of social behaviour and child-rearing; and (5) the individual: perception, learning, motivation, and self-esteem.

The model (fig. 1) focuses on how a change (such as an economic development programme) affects both the quantity of family resources and the system for distributing these resources over time. Time 1 defines the conditions prior to the initiation of the project, Time 2 refers to the period during which the project exists, and Time 3 is the period in which families and households adapt to the changing circumstances brought about by the intervention, usually long after its officers have left the project in local hands.

Fig. 1. Framework for evaluating effects of development projects on intra-household allocation of resources and family welfare.

The value of the framework lies in its role for predicting and monitoring the long term effects of policy change or programmes on individual welfare. The framework's longitudinal orientation makes it equally useful at every stage: in project identification, planning, and evaluation stages.

Prior to the introduction of the project (Time 1), a status quo exists in which resources and allocation systems have resulted in a certain level of nutritional status and well-being in the family members. At Time 2, the short-term impact of the project on both quantity of resources and distribution systems can be observed. These short-term changes will have effects on the children and other family members (arrow down). Most importantly, by including Time 3, perhaps three to five years after the initial project implementation, the model emphasizes the need to monitor long-term project effects on intra-household resource allocation.

During Time 2, when the immediate outcome of the project exerts its effects, changes in resources are expected to have a direct impact on child welfare, though probably not the welfare of other family members. During Time 3, long-term changes in the social system and allocation patterns may have a greater impact on child and family welfare as the family readjusts to new levels of resources, task requirements and allocations, and belief systems.

These long-term changes are often particularly difficult to predict, but they are crucial to the ultimate success of the programme.One must be careful to separate the perspective of the project personnel from that of the individuals concerned. To its officer, the project may seem highly successful on the basis of participation rates at Time 2 (shortterm), but may be foundering by Time 3 (long-term) owing to disrupted intra-household patterns. An added concern is that many project officers have been reassigned by Time 3 and cannot provide the follow-up necessary to monitor the long term intra-household effects of development projects.

The following paragraphs provide an example of a context within which such a scheme can be used to examine the longitudinal effects of change on intra-household processes and on the individual. Our discussion will concentrate on the specific contribution of psychology to areas 3, 4, and 5, the community, the intra-household system, and the individual. The social domains (1) and (2), the ecological and subsistence/production systems, are not presented, as these are borrowed from other disciplines.

Community-level Factors

Social and institutional structures, such as a new school or training project or the establishment of a manufacturing co-operative, which promote changes in family members' roles and the value of their time, can affect intra-household resource distribution. For instance, a development programme in which adolescents gain literacy or a language expertise that their parents do not have may substantially alter expected role relationships (e.g. age superiority), and cause changes in family formation rules, stress, or inheritance patterns. Similarly, a changing economic structure (e.g. a new factory, agricultural project, or training programme) may alter income-earning possibilities and thus change the power relationships in the household as previously discussed.

Intra-household Factors

When new roles emerge for some family members, they are usually accompanied by changes in task, time, and resource allocation patterns within the household. For example, families may encounter severe time constraints and opportunity costs when faced with the time demands of a development project. Projects that do not take into account target individuals' usual activities and time-allocation patterns or constraints represent poor planning, insensitive to intra-household dynamics. Examining how changes in time and task allocation might affect mothers and children is a crucial step in policy and programme implementation. If the project requires time from the mother, or removes a person who had been providing help with household tasks, the mother will have to alter her own time allocation. In the Philippines, King and Evenson (1983) found that as women increased their market time, their leisure time was the first to drop. Not until they were working more than six hours a day did their home production time decline. Similarly, Engle(in preparation, 1988) found that Guatemalan mothers did not report doing less child care until they worked at least six hours per day; they simply added their work time to the amount of time they already spent in home maintenance and child care.

If her work time changes considerably, a mother will be forced to reduce the amount of time she spends in child care, or to replace it with someone else's time. This replacement strategy can be detrimental in the short term to older siblings (particularly to girls) if they are kept home from school to take care of their younger siblings while their mother is occupied. income-generating schemes that do not make provisions for child care may do more harm than good to women in the long run.

Is this change harmful to the child? Many investigators assume that spending less time with the mother is negative for the child (e.g. Popkin, 1980). Data from the United States, however, do not suggest a simple relationship between time spent with the mother and child welfare (Goldberg, 1981). Furthermore, in many rural agrarian societies, older siblings rather than the mother often perform much of the child care, regardless of the mother's work status (Engle, 1986a; in preparation, 1988).

Individual Factors

The effects of sex and age on resource allocation have been discussed briefly above (pp. 68-70) (for a more in-depth treatment, see Safilios-Rothschild, this volume). Here we focus on other individual characteristics of a child that could affect resource allocation. The psychological literature indicates that parental attention to children depends to some extent on the temperament of the child (cf. Lamb, 1982). Thus, individual differences in children's alertness, healthiness, or perceived brightness can influence the level and the nature of the resources they receive.

Psychologists have only recently begun to examine "invincible children," children from highrisk backgrounds who for some reason manage to flourish in later childhood and adulthood (Werner and Smith, 1982). Rather than concentrate on the problem children, these investigators seek to identify the factors influencing those who manage to overcome severe life stresses to achieve a reasonable life. This approach is similar to the investigation of "positive deviance" (Zeitlin et al., 1984). An investigation of these unusually successful children within the household context might reveal which characteristics make children relatively invulnerable to misallocations within the household.


Contributions from psychology to the understanding of intra-household processes are just beginning to be felt. Psychologists are now taking an interest in third-world issues (Wagner, 1986). Some of the areas of investigation that could prove fruitful in the future are the following:

  1. Developing culturally appropriate measures of self-esteem and self-confidence. There has been a long history of measurement of these constructs by Western psychologists, and they have proved to be robust predictors of such diverse outcomes as school achievement, teenage pregnancy avoidance, assertiveness, and occupational success.
  2. Identifying characteristics of households that are responsive to change, and of those in which the stresses of change might cause disruption. When a household falls into the latter category, extra care must be taken to use non-disruptive methods.
  3. Clarifying the effects of changes in individual income generation on decision-making, power, and status within the household.
  4. Determining the circumstances under which particular distribution rules are applied, and what factors might influence changes in these rules.
  5. Elucidating the role of individual characteristics, such as temperament, resilience, or intelligence, both actual and perceived, in intra-household allocation processes.
  6. Identifying the processes or sequences of change. For example, psychologists have found that changes in behaviour often precede changes in attitudes. This information could be applied to projects by recommending small changes in the target population's behaviours prior to a full-scale attitude-change campaign.
  7. Identification of factors within a culture that are associated with higher levels of selfesteem and self-confidence.
  8. Recognition of the powerful role of positive reinforcement and immediate feedback on programme effectiveness.


  1. The task of defining a household will not be treated here, as it has been well discussed by Messer (1983) and Heywood (this volume).


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