Tired of food crises, Africa opts for giving cash

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Friday, 17 August 2007 00:00 GMT

A malnourished infant lies on the floor in a therapeutic feeding centre in southern Niger, June 2005. REUTERS/Finbarr O&${esc.hash}39;Reilly/Files

By Megan Rowling

Some of the African countries who find themselves making emergency food aid appeals year after year have started to ask what&${esc.hash}39;s wrong with the system.

More and more governments and aid agencies are giving regular cash payments to families who live on the edge of survival, saying it&${esc.hash}39;s cheaper to avert a crisis than to provide relief after it happens, and less bureaucracy means more of the aid goes right to the people who need it.

"In Africa, we&${esc.hash}39;ve had more than 20 years of emergency food aid appeals every year," says Rachel Slater, a researcher at Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank that&${esc.hash}39;s helping governments and aid agencies design cash transfer schemes.

"Social protection has emerged from food crises and the need for solutions that aren&${esc.hash}39;t year-on-year food aid."

Ethiopia - which has been hit hard by food emergencies - began a programme in 2005 that gives more than 7 million people money and food in return for work on community projects during hungry months.

Some southern African countries, including Malawi and Zambia, have also been trying out cash transfers, encouraged by the success of the approach in Latin America.

Kenya too is jumping on the bandwagon. It has plans to expand a donor-backed project that makes payments worth ${esc.dollar}20 month to households caring for orphaned children who&${esc.hash}39;ve lost their parents to AIDS or children who have the HIV virus themselves.

And the government has recently approved a large-scale cash programme to help animal-herding tribes in its arid, drought-prone north cope with food and water shortages.

"The headline poverty picture is quite good, but there are still some difficult and challenging regions where people are marginalised and there&${esc.hash}39;s hardly any government provision of services," explains Leigh Stubblefield, an adviser on livelihoods at Britain&${esc.hash}39;s Department for International Development (DFID) in Nairobi.

The British government plans to spend around ??87 million (${esc.dollar}172.5 million) on the northern "hunger safety net" programme over the next 10 years.

CHEAPER OPTION

In Turkana, one of four districts where the scheme will be rolled out, around 95 percent of people live below the poverty line, compared with 46 percent nationally, according to Stubblefield.

That figure has refused to budge downwards, as the area&${esc.hash}39;s livestock-herders grapple with a scarcity of grazing land and water, and disease among their animals.

For the first three to four years of the programme, 60,000 households - encompassing 300,000 people - will receive the equivalent of ${esc.dollar}15 a month.

The regular payments are intended to help them build up assets so that they can weather hard times. The aim is to extend the scheme to 1.5 million - the same number of Kenyans who now receive free food aid.

The economic argument is that it&${esc.hash}39;s cheaper to avert a crisis than to provide relief after it happens.

DFID calculates its cash transfer programme will cost around ${esc.dollar}55 per person per year compared with an average of ${esc.dollar}79 spent on emergency aid. And with traditional relief, delivery is more expensive, meaning that recipients receive only about 60 cents in every dollar, as opposed to 80 cents with cash.

But it&${esc.hash}39;s still tricky getting money to people in places where there are no banks or post offices. Aid agencies have been experimenting with transferring cash via mobile phones, smart card systems and mobile cash machines.

HANDOUT OR HAND-UP?

Across the border in Uganda, the government is backing a pilot project in six districts that will provide a monthly cash allowance worth around ${esc.dollar}10 to 9,000 people who are among the poorest 10 percent of the population.

The communities who are involved will decide who should receive the money, with first priority likely to go to families looking after AIDS orphans and HIV-positive children or headed by elderly people.

"The evidence from other schemes has been that cash transfers to the poorest of the poor lead to the formation of human capital - improvements in nutrition, education and health - allowing them to exit from a seemingly hopeless situation," explains Charles Lwanga Ntale, director of Ugandan non-governmental organisation Development Research and Training and leader of the team that designed the new project.

But not everyone sees the positive side.

Conversations with journalists in the region revealed widespread scepticism, with some arguing that "handouts" will create laziness and welfare dependency, or worse still, end up boosting beer sales.

Lwanga Ntale admits the public - and even some government officials and politicians - has yet to be won over.

But his team plans to launch an awareness-raising campaign that will include publishing "frequently asked questions".

"A lot of those who are against cash transfers are middle-class people in paid employment," he explains. "These are people who have probably not had much opportunity to see how poverty and development work."

Even enthusiasts of cash schemes warn they are not a silver bullet to wipe out the need for emergency aid overnight.

In some places, including Ethiopia, there have been teething troubles. A sharp rise in the price of grain has dented the value of the payments there, with recipients complaining that the money isn&${esc.hash}39;t enough.

Besides boosting inflation, cash schemes can also increase the risks of insecurity and corruption.

Moreover, experts warn that cash benefits alone cannot reduce poverty. They need to be accompanied by comprehensive initiatives to build basic services, economic opportunities and political empowerment.

Nonetheless a growing band of donors see cash transfers as a way of bridging the divide between relief and development.

DFID, together with African governments and European partners, aims to nearly double to 16 million the number of people moved from emergency relief to long-term social protection programmes by 2009.

ODI&${esc.hash}39;s Slater says it&${esc.hash}39;s still too early to judge whether cash programmes will live up to their star billing in Africa.

"The benefits of providing long-term, predictable transfers are not in place yet," she says. "But what we are seeing is a real desire to move away from the &${esc.hash}39;food first&${esc.hash}39; approach."

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