Can Conditional Programs Achieve Democratic Equality?

Elizabeth Anderson believes that conditionality is inherently incompatible with her conception of democratic equality. I argue however that when the feasibility of safety-net programs is a significant limitation, robustly structured and well implemented conditional safety nets are justified as long as the state does not lose its sense of responsibility for its citizens. To advance this view, I will demonstrate how Anderson’s main critiques of conditional safety nets are not as impactful in the context of the global south. In particular, I have chosen the two most salient issues with conditionality put forward by Anderson, and I will use the Philippines’ Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4P’s) case study to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. Through this case study, we will observe how conditional safety net programs are not inherently flawed, and can achieve democratic equality as long as the state does not lose its sense of responsibility for its citizens.

The Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program 

The 4P’s is a conditional cash transfer program at the forefront of the Philippine national government’s economic redistribution and social policy[1]. Inspired by conditional cash transfer models in Latin America and Africa, the 4P’s gives out grants to households that meet certain criteria[2]. First, an education grant is given to families who have children under the age of 18 who are enrolled in school and have at least an 85% attendance rate[3]. Second, a health grant is given to families whose children have received a certain set of healthcare requirements, and whose mothers have attended pre- and post- natal checks[4].

As a human development measure that aims to provide social assistance and promote social development, the 4 P’s advances a definition of equality that looks beyond wealth distribution[5]. The program provides short term boosts to household wealth through its provision of cash grants, and it invests in human capital in the long run through its conditionalities. Thus, the 4P’s hits two birds with one stone, addressing immediate wealth needs, while promoting long term human development.

Elizabeth Anderson’s Democratic Equality

How would philosopher Elizabeth Anderson view this case?

I choose to focus this piece on Anderson because she posits a multilayered definition of equality called democratic equality that looks beyond income and wealth[6]. For her, egalitarian discourse requires us to deal with issues of social relations. She writes that true equality requires both the possession of capabilities that allow people to function as equal citizens, and the abolishment of private relations of domination[7]. In other words, if the state were to apply some sort of safety net, it must promote both economic redistribution and healthy social relations.

I believe that any social safety net must pursue a multilayered definition of equality similar to Anderson’s. However, Anderson argues that conditional safety net programs are inherently incompatible with her democratic equality. In particular, she criticizes luck egalitarian views of equality which include conditional programs. Does this mean that the Philippines’ 4P’s, and the other conditional programs in Latin America and Africa after which this program was modeled after are inherently incompatible with democratic equality? To what extent are state-sanctioned conditional safety nets justifiable in pursuing Elizabeth Anderson’s equality of social relations?

Moving forward, I analyze two of Anderson’s biggest critiques against luck egalitarianism and argue that conditional programs are not inherently incompatible with democratic equality. Robustly structured and well implemented conditional safety nets are justified as long as the state does not lose its sense of responsibility for its citizens.

Anderson’s Views on Conditionality

The first issue raised by Anderson is the problem of conditionality itself. Anderson argues that a safety net with conditionalities is inherently flawed because it fails to help all the worst off[8]. By requiring households to meet certain criteria for aid, conditional programs carve out arbitrary subsets within a universal set of the “worst off.” In the Philippine program for instance, only poverty stricken households with children who meet the criteria are given state-aid. In this case, some groups such as the poverty stricken households without children are not given state support on the basis that they are childless. Anderson posits that the state should “express concern for everyone who is worst off,” not just for some arbitrarily determined subset of people.

I agree with Anderson on the point that a state must support everyone who is the worst off, but I argue that in some cases such as the 4P’s, the conditions used to create subgroups are not necessarily arbitrary, as long as the state maintains its sense of responsibility for its citizens.

We can view different types of conditionality on a spectrum. On one side, some conditions may require preposterous things that are not agreeable, whereas at the opposite extreme, conditions may be intuitively justifiable. Anderson actually provides an example of a preposterous condition. She writes, “One doesn’t want anyone with any trivial personal dissatisfaction, such as having bad hair, to be entitled to compensation.” [9] We would all agree that providing cash grants to a subgroup of the worst off with ugly hairstyles is unjust. Hairstyle is an arbitrary condition for aid. Another less extreme, yet socially relevant example might be the Singapore government’s Baby Bonus program which offers cash grants to parents who deliver a child at a certain date[10]. Isn’t it a controversial idea to offer aid to a subgroup that conceives and delivers a baby at a certain time?

In contrast, the 4P’s incentivizes behaviors that are more intuitive and agreeable. Its conditions advance values of education and healthcare, which are advantageous in the long run, not just to beneficiaries themselves, but to the advancement of the nation.

Anderson fails to recognize that there are some conditions intuitively more justifiable than others. I am not arguing that the Philippine conditions are perfect, but they are definitely more favorable in comparison to some other alternatives like hairstyle and scheduled child delivery. So I don’t think Anderson’s democratic equality is incompatible with conditionality, as long as the conditions chosen are agreeable and justifiable. Instead, issues arise if the state loses its sense of responsibility for its citizens and chooses some arbitrary unjustifiable conditions. In that case, democratic equality is not met.

The second critique Anderson posits is the problem of implementation. Apart from arguing that conditionality itself is inherently flawed, Anderson additionally suggests that such programs can be implemented unjustly as well. The Philippine case reveals two evident manifestations of this problem: poor supply-side support and failure to protect beneficiary identity.

First is a supply-side issue. What if there is a shortage of schools or hospitals in a community? This is a huge problem for Anderson because, even the prudent members of society who choose and work to meet the conditions of education and health investment may be denied cash grants for reasons beyond their control.[11] In this case, the state fails to provide enough infrastructure for its citizens. Again, I argue that the issue here is one of responsibility . The state must not forget its responsibility to provide for its citizens. If a state chooses to implement a conditional cash transfer program, then it must ensure that citizens are able to adhere to the required conditions if they choose to do so.

Another issue of implementation is a problem of respect. Anderson firmly believes that conditional programs in practice are disrespectful, even to the people being helped. She writes, “to require citizens to display evidence of personal inferiority in order to get aid from the state is to reduce them to groveling for support.”[12] Since Anderson’s democratic equality demands equalized social relations, dignity, and respect, she finds it problematic when beneficiaries need to prove their inferior status to a judgmental state.

Under the 4P’s, the poorest of the poor households are recorded in a master list called the “Listahanan”, and beneficiaries’ adherence to program criteria are monitored constantly[13]. These  mechanisms that identify and monitor households’ “poorness,” may create and perpetuate relationships of oppression between poor households, and the “rich and powerful.” Again, I suggest that if the state maintained its responsibility for its citizens, it would not allow such oppressive relations to form. Simple remedies such as keeping beneficiaries’ identities confidential from other non-state actors in the community can ensure both of Anderson’s goals for equality: economic redistribution and the abolishment of oppressive relations.


In conclusion, conditional programs in pursuit of Anderson’s democratic equality  are justifiable if conditions are agreeable and if program implementation is robust. And all of this is dependent on the state’s sense of responsibility for its citizens.

First, I’ve shown that there is a spectrum of potential conditions, and a state should choose to implement more justifiable ones for the benefit of its citizens. Second, I’ve demonstrated how a responsible state should improve program implementation by investing in supply side programs and by protecting its citizens from relational oppression. Thus, the issue at hand is not conditionality, but it is in fact, state responsibility. As long as a state maintains its sense of responsibility for its citizens, robustly structured and well implemented conditional safety net programs may achieve Anderson’s democratic equality.


[1] Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program: GOVPH. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2020, from

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program: Program Overview Slide Deck. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program: GOVPH. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2020, from

[6] Anderson, E. S. (1999). What is the Point of Equality? The University of Chicago Press Journals, 109(2), ethics, 287-337.

[7] Ibid., 316

[8] Ibid., 304-305

[9] Ibid., 303

[10] Baby Bonus. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2020, from

[11]  Anderson, E. S. (1999). What is the Point of Equality? The University of Chicago Press Journals, 109(2), ethics, 287-337.

[12] Ibid., 305

[13] The Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program: Program Overview Slide Deck. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)

“last day at school” by Scowl Broccoli is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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