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Cash transfers in Niger neither panacea nor pariah

Saka Salhou, cash transfer recipient in Niger's Tahoua region Phuong Tran/IRIN
The instructions were clear for aid workers with the NGO CARE Niger who were responsible for distributing to hundreds of Niger villagers more than US$80,000 in cash transfers: Withdraw small bills from the bank. Verify the amount placed in hundreds of envelopes. Oversee the bank employee lining up envelopes in a suitcase. Accompanied by plain-clothes security forces and the bank employee, deliver the suitcases of money to 24 villages throughout the central Tahoua region.

With the UK-funded cash transfers scheduled to end later this year, IRIN visited families in one village in south central Niger to learn whether $150 a year can stave off hunger and death, some of the goals of the transfers.

In 2007 CARE was one of four international non-profits, with one local NGO, selected by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) to test whether cash transfers along with agriculture support, cereal banks and animal vaccinations and treatments, can achieve those objectives.

“What good is a cereal bank if villagers do not have money to buy anything?” said Nana Tchiemago, CARE’s disaster risk reduction manager in Niger until 1 August. CARE leads the NGOs in the three-year nearly $5-million programme.

More, but less

“I had never seen so much money in my life,” said Saka Salhou, who was identified by a village committee in Tsernaoua as “extremely vulnerable”. She told IRIN she used to weave straw mats, which on good days sold for up to $1.60 each. With the $150, split into a $100 payment in April 2008 at the start of the agriculture growing season when food runs low and $50 in October during harvest season, she told IRIN she bought a goat for $40.

The remainder she spent on food for her family and millet to sell porridge in the market.

When asked how her income had changed with the transfer, Salhou told IRIN she now had a baby goat, but that it was too soon to make any money from it. “My [most recent] payment of $100 is long gone. I used it for rice and millet, which are both gone.” She said she is now back to weaving mats.

In a February government survey of almost 400 families (one-third the number of households receiving cash under the DFID grant), 38 percent said their income had “substantially increased” and 15 percent that they had “diversified” work activities. But more than half of those surveyed said their money bought less than before.

The mid-way evaluation noted that a bad 2008 harvest in some areas and higher food prices wiped out the increased income for certain villagers. 

Almost 12 percent of Tahoua’s population faced extreme food insecurity following the 2008 harvest, according to the government.

54% of surveyed cash recipients said their purchasing power had decreased
38% households reported "substantial" increase in income
Source: Niger disaster risk reduction consortium, May 2009

CARE’s Tchiemago told IRIN money alone cannot solve structural problems like land degradation or bad weather. “Our goal is realistic. We want to get families to a certain level of stability so they can solve their immediate problems.”

But cash transfers can obstruct long-term development, according to coordinator Josef Garvi with the NGO Eden Foundation, which has worked with farmers in Niger for two decades on seed development and reforestation.

“Such measures [transfers] create dependency on external assistance and draw people away from their livelihoods in search of free donations,” Garvi told IRIN. “Generating unrealistic expectations of a continuous inflow of donations, cash handouts reduce people’s own motivation – and later ability – of taking care of themselves, thus destroying those very mechanisms that allow them to cope with the difficulties of their everyday lives.”

But producers work harder for their own livelihoods when they are relieved of the financial burden of working as day labourers for others, according to NGO Save the Children UK in an evaluation of its cash transfer programme in Niger’s southern Maradi region.

CARE’s Tchiemago told IRIN cash does not cause dependency. “Whether it is soap, millet or cash, families can become dependent on all or none of them. It depends on the household’s engagement to improve their situation.”

Toulla Abdourahame, who was not considered vulnerable enough to qualify for a cash giveaway by CARE 200908241802500575
Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
Toulla Abdourahame, not considered vulnerable enough to qualify for cash giveaway

There are no conditions on how the cash is spent.

CARE’s Tchiemago said the village selection committee and CARE staff educate villagers about their transfers, which can be many more times their average annual income. “Yes, it is a family’s right to organize a marriage or baptism [with the cash transfer]. It is a huge source of frustration and loss of dignity for them to have to wait until after the harvest to organize a baptism. But most families do not use transfers for that.”

She said that while her team does its best to follow up on spending, they are covering too many villages to track in-depth each family’s expenses.

Other concerns about using cash transfers in emergencies include the heightened security risks for staff who deliver money, the potential for household conflicts, the risk of inflation, the challenges of running cash programmes and the increased competition for cash over in-kind assistance, which can complicate targeting, according to a recent ODI report.

For villages in which CARE distributed transfers, village committees ranked families from “average” to “extreme” vulnerability based on health and income criteria. Tsernaoua village chief representative Saidi Al Bakhari told IRIN some people have approached the complaint committee – set up as part of the selection process – contending that they should have been selected.

The committee has evaluated all claims, but has not yet changed a family’s vulnerability ranking.

Though not selected to receive a cash transfer, Tsernaoua resident Toulla Abdourahame told IRIN she thinks the selection committee was fair. “I have enough money to buy soap wholesale at the market and resell it here in the village. There are other families who need the cash more,” the 30-year-old mother of two told IRIN.

She said both of her daughters are in school and that she has enough income from her livestock. When asked how she was able to have cash to buy goods wholesale, she said she had inherited two cows from her family. “From those cows, I bought more animals.”

Abdourahame told IRIN she now has three cows, five sheep and 10 goats.

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