Nyasa Times

Published: February 24, 2010

In these tough economic times it is hard to imagine that MK1800 (about US$13) could be life changing.

However, in Malawi’s central region district of Mchinji, even as little as MK600 is changing lives.

The cash is being given out as part of a government-backed social cash transfer scheme, which is being piloted in the district with financial and technical assistance from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the National AIDS Commission (NAC).

Teresa Chatsilizika, 45, living in T/A Nyalo in the district is one of the few beneficiaries of this scheme. With a monthly cash transfer of just MK1800, Teresa is now able to feed her family and send her children to school.

And by saving a little each month and investing part of the money in groundnut farming, she has built a new brick house roofed with iron sheets.

“I’m grateful to government for this scheme. Food is no longer a problem in my family and my children are going to school,” she said last month when contacted by journalists attending a training workshop on Covering Poverty, Social Protection and Food security organised by the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme (RHVP).

Teresa is one of over 70,000 beneficiaries in this scheme, which is also being implemented in Likoma, Machinga and Salima districts.

The scheme targets households in the pilot area that are ‘ultra-poor’ and at the same time labour constrained.

According to a pamphlet titled ‘Social Protection Profile” published by the implementing partners, a household is ultra-poor when the members can afford no more than one meal a day, have no valuable assets and are unable to buy essential non-food items such as soap and clothing.

A household, on the other hand, is labour constrained when it has no able-bodied member in the 19-64 age group who is fit to work –or one member is between 19 and 64, is fit to work, but has to care for more than three dependents.

According to the pamphlet, such households are typically headed by the elderly looking after orphaned and vulnerable children, female-headed households with more than three children, child-headed households and households with chronically ill, disabled or HIV infected members.

Malawi is placed 160 among 182 world’s poorest countries, according to the Human Development Index 2009 rankings, and has around 52 percent of its 13.2 million people living below the poverty line.

And according to the 2007 Integrated Household Survey, 22 percent of the population lives under the ultra poverty line. All of the beneficiaries of the social cash transfer scheme fall in this category.

The aim of the scheme is to reduce poverty and hunger among these poorest of the poor, increase school enrolment and improve the health and well-being of children, and generate information on the programme’s feasibility, cost and impact with a view to scaling up nationally.

Beneficiaries are selected by community members from the villages in the pilot area in order to enhance transparency in the targeting process and to ensure that the scheme is accepted by the communities.

District Social Welfare Officer for Mchinji, Ernest Chikuni, said, during a study tour by the journalists undergoing training on poverty, social protection and food security last month, that the selection of beneficiaries is a multi-stage process.

“At the village level we have what we call community social protection committees. The members first list, visit and then interview all households that meet the targeting criteria. They then rank all eligible households starting with the most needy households, the second most needy and so on,” he said.

Chikuni, whose office is among those responsible for implementation at the district level, said the committees then present the selected households and their ranking to a community meeting in order to validate and ensure that no households that meet the criteria are left out and that a consensus on the appropriate ranking is achieved.

At district level, the Social Protection Sub-Committee checks further if the targeting process has been fair and transparent and if the results are correct. The committee then approves 10 percent of most needy households.

The selected households receive a monthly disbursement of cash, which is paid to them by the District Assembly accounts staff.

The scheme has different transfer options depending on household size and takes into account if the household has children in primary or secondary school.

Typically, a single person household gets K600 per month (US$4) while a household of more than 4 persons gets K1, 800 (US$13).

For children enrolled in primary school, a bonus of K200 is added while for secondary school children the household receives an additional K400 per month.

The beneficiaries are re-evaluated annually to determine their eligibility, and those who have managed to generate income through innovative initiatives are able to exit the scheme.

Government started piloting the scheme in Mchinji district in September 2006 as part of the process to develop a national social protection policy, whose aim is to protect, promote and transform the livelihoods and welfare of the ultra-poor.

The idea is for the social cash transfers to become an integral part of the national social protection programme, covering the country’s all 28 districts by 2012.

The implementation of this programme will be financed from a Basket Fund mechanism with funding from 1.5 percent GDP government allocation combined with complementary funding from development partners.

But while government and its partners see the benefits of this programme, the idea of giving people cash to reduce their poverty is ridiculed by some poverty experts.

Peter Greer, a well-known Christian poverty expert argues that instead of helping poor people with handouts that will eventually run out, it is more effective to lift people out of poverty through other means.

Greer, author of the book “The Poor Will Be Glad”, urges Christians who care about alleviating global poverty to consider making donations toward microfinance for poor people instead of cash handouts.

“The most compassionate way of helping someone isn’t to give them a handout long-term,” Greer says, adding: “The most compassionate thing you can do is to help them use their God-given abilities to work and to take care of their own needs.”

Greer argues that charity or handouts keep individuals in a position of dependency thereby removing their sense of dignity.

However, others disagree with this view and support cash handouts.

Mayke Huijbregts, UNICEF Malawi’s social protection expert argues that rather than creating dependency, social cash transfers give the poor a chance to invest in their needs.

And in their study report “The Human Rights View of Social Cash Transfers for achieving the Millennium Development Goals”, German researchers Rolf Kunnemann and Ralf Leonhard argue that all of us are dependent on others or something in one way or another.

“Dependency on the state or a local authority commanding the SCT (Social Cash Transfer) is not necessarily worse than being dependent on a husband, a rich relative or on begging the neighbours,” they say.

For these researchers, the fact that beneficiaries of the social cash transfers are able to send their children to school and improve their health and nutrition are seen as important development activities, which can help break the cycle of poverty and in the end, help in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

The debate about the merits and demerits of cash handouts will probably go on for generations to come. However, further studies and evaluations are needed to assess the impact of social cash transfers on poverty eradication efforts.

But for now, success stories such as the amazing story of Teresa Chatsilizika who has been able to build her own house using cash transfers, and to feed and send her children to school, indicate that these social transfers could be very effective in reducing extreme poverty.

*The author is a Programme Assistant at the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR)

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