Cash transfers are increasingly used in sub-Saharan Africa as a social protection instrument to address poverty and improve the health and well-being of children living in poor resource and high HIV prevalence areas. Small amounts of cash given to poor households on a regular and predictable (often monthly or bi-monthly) basis allow for control, independence and decision making [1, 2]. However, cash transfers, which target some households and not others, can misfire and lead to conflict, jealousy and other unintended consequences. It is against this background that we explore community perceptions of a community-led cash transfer programme in Zimbabwe and discuss the role of community participation in contributing to the acceptability of cash transfers, reducing the risk of unintended consequences, and meeting programme objectives.
Conditional cash transfers gained popularity in South America where long-standing programmes have demonstrated their success through significant improvements in access to education, food security, child health and growth [2–6]. In addition to highlighting significant health impacts, studies from the region have also indicated the potential of cash transfers to undermine local coping strategies  as well as reinforcing gender roles and responsibilities in managing the impact of poverty [8–11].
Nonetheless, inspired by the potential of cash transfers in South America, in 2006, the African Union spearheaded ‘The Livingstone Call for Action’, which brought together Ministers and senior government officials from 13 African countries to discuss the role of cash transfers. The meeting firmly established cash transfers as a viable and promising social protection strategy for Africa. As such, a number of sub-Saharan African countries have begun to design, implement and scale-up cash transfer programmes (see for examples, [12, 13]).
The early experiences of unconditional cash transfer programmes in sub-Saharan Africa have been succinctly discussed by Adato and Bassett  in their review of published evaluations. They found several positive effects of unconditional cash transfers, including improved nutritional status of children (Malawi, South Africa and Zambia), reduced reports of illness amongst children (Malawi and Zambia) and increased school enrolment and attendance (Ethiopia, South Africa, Zambia and Malawi). More recently, a conditional cash transfer programme in Malawi observed significant reductions in risky sexual behaviour, early marriage and pregnancy amongst young women aged 13–22 years . Our own study in Zimbabwe found cash transfers to i) increase school attendance amongst orphaned and vulnerable children; ii) increase birth registration of children in households receiving conditional cash transfers; and iii) to have no significant effect on vaccination uptake .
Although current evaluations of cash transfer programmes in sub-Saharan Africa indicate great potential, MacAusland and Riemenschneider  argue that the evaluation studies that dominate the cash transfer literature are too focused on ‘material’ and health gains, with less attention given to changes in the ‘relational’ and ‘symbolic’ dimensions that shape the social landscape in which cash transfer programmes are located. Social studies have sought to fill this gap by raising questions about the socio-ethical implications of cash transfers. For example, studies in Africa have reported on conflict and jealousy arising from the divisiveness of some households being targeted whilst others are not, even though they are all considered poor [17, 18]. An in-depth study of female cash transfer recipients in South Africa found that although cash transfers provided women with a valuable safety net, helping them to cope with poverty and domestic obligations , these women also felt labelled as poor, stigmatised as lazy, and experienced shame through their association a cash transfer programme transfer . Similar observations have been made in Kenya where cash transfer recipients deliberately kept their status as cash transfer recipients a secret out of fear of public opinion . Such studies suggest that cash transfer programmes often fail to adequately resonate with local norms and structures, but provide us with few clues as to how we can create a better fit between local norms and structures and the very nature of cash transfers (i.e. some households receive a regular income whilst others do not) to achieve more widespread social acceptability – buy-in from community members – and in the process overcome potential unintended consequences.
In this paper we use qualitative data to explore community member’s experiences of a community-led cash transfer programme in Manicaland, eastern Zimbabwe. More specifically, we examine their perspectives on how participatory the programme was and how this in turn, combined with their perceived impact of the programme, helped achieve social acceptability. We hope that our partial focus on the implementation process, and lessons learned from embedding the cash transfer programme into a community context, provides useful insights to how cash transfer programmes can pay more attention to possibilities of participation and community agency, and thereby be more aligned with local realities, achieve social acceptability and meet programme objectives.