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Safety nets help to climate-proof the poor

[Ethiopia] Young boy waiting for food.
The cash transfer programme aims to end food aid dependency in Ethiopia (irin)

A unique safety net programme being piloted in Ethiopia, which attempts to break away from the traditional humanitarian model, is being punted in the UN Development Programme's Human Development Report 2007/2008 as a "bold attempt" to tackle food security threats posed by an uncertain climate.

The Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) targets people facing predictable food insecurity and offers guaranteed employment for five days a month in return for transfers of either food or cash - US$4 per month for each household member - said the report, which focuses on climate change.

"It is not a poverty alleviation programme, but rather an attempt to build resilience to face shocks, which is why it could prove effective as shocks get more severe because of climate change," said Stephen Devereux, a fellow of the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex. Devereux assessed the impact of the PSNP for the Ethiopian government in the programme's first year.

Food security in Africa is likely to be severely affected by climate change, with production expected to halve by 2020, according to the latest projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has warned that crop revenues in Africa could fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100.

"Climate shocks have the potential to lock smallholder agriculture into downward spirals that undermine the prospects for human development," said the UNDP report. Not only are people left facing nutritional threats, but farmers are also left without seeds, or the cash to purchase seeds and other inputs for next season's crop.

"This increases the prospect of reduced income and employment, and hence of continuing dependence on food aid," but employment-based programmes provide a longer-term safety net, said the UNDP report.

PSNP is different from other food-for-work programmes because the transfer is "predictable", and the emphasis has moved towards cash transfers rather than food, Devereux added. "A regular income helps people build assets, besides stimulating the local market."

Unlike the food-aid model - in which food is obtained, often by making an emergency appeal, and distributed - the PSNP is a multiyear arrangement: it started with five million people in 2005 and intends to cover eight million by 2009.

Community assets have also been created by public works - the construction of schools, health posts and feeder roads, potable water development, small-scale irrigation and natural resource conservation - which will contribute to a gradual improvement in the livelihoods of the poor.

The programme was funded by the UK Department for International Development, the US Agency for International Aid, the World Bank, the European Commission, the Canadian International Development Agency, Ireland Aid, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Swedish International Development Agency.

PSNP arose partly out of concerns by the Ethiopian government and the donor community that emergency appeals were regularly falling short of their targets, or providing late and erratic support, the UNDP report said. "For poor households, delayed support during a prolonged drought can have devastating consequences in both the short and longer term. In 1983-1984 it led to the death of thousands of vulnerable people [in Ethiopia]".

The Ethiopian government was also averse to the idea of creating dependency by handing out food aid, said Devereux. Five major droughts in two decades meant that most Ethiopian households have not had time to recover, and hundreds of thousands of people lived on the brink of survival every year.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 46 percent of the population were malnourished in 2000/03, and the WFP still feeds at least six million people in Ethiopia.


A survey by Devereux to determine the impact of PSNP transfers on 1,000 households found that most were consuming more or better food than in the previous year, and more than half reported that they had been able to retain more of their own food to eat.

''Of course, life is difficult - but at least now I have something to get us through the hard times; now we eat better food, I can keep my nine-year-old in school, and I am saving to buy a calf''

Three in five beneficiaries said they had avoided selling assets to buy food, while around a quarter had acquired new assets; almost all attributed this directly to the PSNP.

Half the beneficiaries said they had used healthcare facilities more than in the previous year, and over one-third of households enrolled more of their children in school, with almost half keeping them in school for longer.

"Before this programme we could only eat twice [a day]," said Debre Wondimi, 28, a woman with four children quoted in the UNDP report, living in Lay Gant, a woreda (district) in South Gondar, Ethiopia.

"In the hungry time before the harvest perhaps we would only have one meal [a day]. The children suffered. Sometimes I could not keep them in school or pay for medicines when they were ill. Of course, life is difficult - but at least now I have something to get us through the hard times; now we eat better food, I can keep my nine-year-old in school, and I am saving to buy a calf."


Around 35 million of Ethiopia's people live below the poverty line, and the UNDP report noted that many potential beneficiaries were excluded. Devereux pointed out that the programme depended on donor funding.

The PSNP intends to "graduate" recipients, said Devereux. "The idea is that within three years people would have been able to accumulate some assets and build some resilience, but how do you know that they are now prepared to face the next big shock? The people's resilience can only be tested by the next big emergency."

The UN report also noted that this might be "over-ambitious", but acknowledged that the programme's "early implementation phase does demonstrate the potential of well-targeted interventions to support household coping strategies".

Devereux said social cash transfers were the most effective way to make poor people resilient to face shocks, although the PSNP model might not work in southern Africa, where people have to contend with HIV/AIDS besides climate shocks.

"You cannot expect people with HIV/AIDS to work in public works programmes, but various NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and donors have piloted several social-cash transfer programmes in southern Africa," he pointed out. Nevertheless, the model could be rolled out elsewhere.

Social cash grants financed by governments, such as in South Africa, were also catching on, but most African countries would prefer to invest in business or production rather than the poor, Devereux commented.

"Poor countries Like Lesotho and Swaziland have started dispensing old age pensions to anyone who turns 60, which shows that it is more to do with political will - countries can find the money to invest in their poor."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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