Geographic microtargeting of social assistance with high-resolution poverty maps

Hundreds of millions of poor families receive some form of targeted social assistance. Many of these antipoverty programs involve some degree of geographic targeting, where aid is prioritized to the poorest regions of the country. However, policy makers in many low-resource settings lack the disaggregated poverty data required to make effective geographic targeting decisions. Using several independent datasets from Nigeria, this paper shows that high-resolution poverty maps, constructed by applying machine learning algorithms to satellite imagery and other nontraditional geospatial data, can improve the targeting of government cash transfers to poor families. Specifically, we find that geographic targeting relying on machine learning–based poverty maps can reduce errors of exclusion and inclusion relative to geographic targeting based on recent nationally representative survey data. This result holds for antipoverty programs that target both the poor and the extreme poor and for initiatives of varying sizes. We also find no evidence that machine learning–based maps increase targeting disparities by demographic groups, such as gender or religion. Based in part on these findings, the Government of Nigeria used this approach to geographically target emergency cash transfers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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