By Victor Koyi, Africa Regional
Director, ChildFund International
As countries across Africa continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments and humanitarian organizations are implementing cash transfer programs to support poor families.
With the widespread use of mobile money in many countries, cash transfer is the better option for supporting and empowering families during this difficult period. Unlike other programs such as food distribution, cash transfers are cost-efficient and almost corruption-free because money goes directly to beneficiaries with no middlemen involved. Manual cash and food distribution are risky, costly, makes social distancing difficult, and unhygienic.
Cash transfer has significant positive social and economic impacts. The joy when a poor jobless single mother living in a slum receives cash that enables her to buy food for her children is immeasurable. This program is giving hope to families that would otherwise not have food or a place to sleep. These are families who struggled daily to feed themselves even before COVID-19 and have now lost incomes because of the pandemic and restrictions to contain its spread.
Unfortunately, due to limited resources, most cash transfer programs are operating at a small or medium scale, reaching only a limited number of beneficiaries, yet many more are struggling to meet basic needs such as food. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), the coronavirus pandemic will see more than a quarter of a billion people suffering acute hunger by the end of 2020.Latest numbers from WFP indicate that the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic, up from a current 135 million.
In a bid to mitigate the socio-economic hardships imposed by COVID-19 on poor families, ChildFund is implementing an unconditional cash transfer program in 9 countries in Africa.
To date, the organization has disbursed over 1,806,689 USD to 76,685 families in Senegal, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Guinea, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Mozambique. Each family receives an average of USD 30 USD every month to help them meet basic needs. In The Gambia in ChildFund commenced its cash transfer program in May benefitting 1,411families in West Coast Region and Kiang West district in the Lower Region. In June, a second phase of the cash transfer program reached 1,441 families. These unconditional cash transfers allow poor households the choice and flexibility of allocating resources to meet the needs they find most pressing. Unfortunately, this initiative is a drop in the ocean, given the remaining population that needs to be supported.
The benefits of this cash transfer program cannot be overstated. It goes beyond physical nourishment when families have food or the peace they get when they can pay rent. Cash transfers can also ensure the safety and protection of children- especially young girls. There has been a surge in teenage pregnancies since schools were closed. Some of these are cases of sex in exchange for food or money to buy necessities such as sanitary towels. Responsible parents with cash are more likely to be able to provide for their children. This initiative has also helped to revive small businesses.
Based on the impact that this program has achieved so far, there is need to scale up to reach more deserving families. But before we do so, we must address the challenges facing cash transfer programs.
First, we must acknowledge that not everyone has a phone. As cheap as we may think phones are today, there are still poor people who cannot afford the cheapest phone in the market. Such beneficiaries should be identified and supported with phones for a start. Although the number of people with phones and access to mobile money is expanding rapidly in Africa, many are still left out.
In addition, the identification of beneficiaries should not exacerbate inequalities. Persons with disabilities should be given priority and gender gaps should be taken into consideration. Common stereotypes such as the notion that most men, if registered as recipients will ‘drink’ the money while women will put family priorities first, should be avoided. While this may be true in some cases, it is not always the norm. Yes – targeting women will increase their control over resources and empower them economically, but some women may also spend on the wrong things. It is not uncommon to hear of a beneficiary who is busy getting drunk on funds received from a cash transfer program while his/ her children sleep hungry. Ultimately, there should be monitoring mechanisms to ensure households use money received for the intended purpose.
Community participation is key to the success of these programs. Local community leaders e.g., chiefs and village elders should be involved in the process of identifying and validating beneficiaries using a door-to-door approach. These leaders should be people of integrity who will not demand for a cut from the beneficiaries before or after signing them up or collude to register ‘wrong’, or ‘non-existent’beneficiaries.
The negative impact of cash transfer programs on non-beneficiaries should also be addressed. Besides the feeling of jealousy that some non-beneficiaries may harbor towards beneficiaries, there might also be as pill over negative impact on local economies. For example, if a significant sum of money is channeled into one community, commodity prices may go up, which in turn can have a negative impact on non-beneficiaries who cannot afford these commodities.
Cash transfers not only help to put food on the table but also support the recovery of livelihoods, protection of children and increase access to healthcare services. In this regard, it should be an ongoing feature of how poor families are supported. Stakeholders, including governments and humanitarian organizations should jointly develop strategies to expand and sustain successful cash transfer programs that work towards alleviating poverty and building sustainable livelihoods. Working together will ensure that organizations avoid duplication, increase coverage and overall impact so that the money reaches the people who need it the most as fast as possible, regardless of ethnicity, gender, race, or religion.