Aid agency cash and voucher transfers in emergencies have increased significantly in recent years. The World Food Programme (WFP), for example, has tripled its distributions over the past three years.
The priority now must be to ensure these emergency schemes complement, rather than replace, governments' long-term social protection efforts; get governments to take on more of the financial burden; and make sure cash schemes are woven into other protection schemes, such as free school meals and health care, say aid workers.
West African governments and donors currently run dozens of social protection schemes, be they cash vouchers (WFP is transferring cash in Ghana, Niger and Senegal, among other countries); longer-term social protection (World Bank and governments in Ghana, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso); or government-driven food subsidies in response to high staple food prices (Senegal, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, among others, have experimented with these for years).
If designed well, short-term schemes should complement long-term ones, said Margie Rehm, WFP's West Africa cash and voucher programme officer. In West Africa, this may end up looking like this: "WFP runs cash-for-work for the poorest families in the dry season, and extends this help to poor families, making it unconditional during the lean season, to avoid them from sliding down the socioeconomic scale. This is our strategy for the next two years," she told IRIN.
Paul Harvey, a partner in Humanitarian Outcomes, has long argued that long-term protection schemes should be better coordinated with short-term emergency transfers, and that is starting to happen, according to cash programmers in West Africa.
While an increase in cash transfers is to be welcomed, Al Hassan Cissé, Oxfam's West Africa food security advocacy coordinator, stressed the need for governments to take on more of the responsibility and financial burden for social protection. While Ghana funds half of its social protection scheme (and the World Bank the rest), the World Bank funds the bulk of such schemes in Mali and Niger.
"It is hard to say how much this push for cash has been led by donors or by governments," remarked Christophe Breyne, coordinator of the Cash and Learning Partnership a network aimed at boosting learning on cash transfers funded by European Union humanitarian funder ECHO.
There are signs that governments are engaging, he said, pointing to a recent initiative by the Mauritanian government to analyse how its untargeted subsidies of cooking gas and cooking oil could be redirected to protection schemes for the poorest.
Mitigation cheaper than response
Advocates should push the now well-spread message that mitigation - in this case in the form of long-term cash handouts and other protection schemes - is cheaper than response, said several cash experts. This is another way of getting national governments on board. Though few studies explicitly explore the impact of cash in this context, the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) East Africa study demonstrating cost-savings of mitigation versus response would apply as well to cash as other sectors, said Breyne.
|Learning from others|
|Lessons can be learned from governments that have attempted to make short- and long-term cash schemes work well on a large scale. Widely cited as a success is Brazil's Bolsa Familia social protection scheme whereby the government, in the face of recession, increased the value of the conditional cash benefits it paid out to 44 million people, and relaxed the eligibility criteria from a monthly income of US$71 to$82, thus adding 12 million people to the scheme.
India is beginning to transform its existing subsidy programmes (e.g. state shops which sell subsidized goods; voucher schemes for poor farmers) into cash transfers with which it plans to reach 245,000 people. Roll-out has been slow as so many different programmes are involved, including education, fuel and food subsidies.
WFP has been running a food voucher project in Senegal's southern Casamance region over the past two years; the government is scaling it up and rolling it out to other regions hit by the food crisis, looking to Brazil for inspiration. "This is a good opportunity for south-south collaboration," said WFP's Rehm.
In Ghana, WFP is developing a cash transfer project to complement the government's long-term Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) safety-net scheme, partly-funded by the UK, which aims to help poor families "leap" out of poverty by cushioning them against hard times, and by tying cash transfers to birth registration, school enrolment, pre-natal visits, and child immunizations.
Banks, beneficiaries', agencies' and governments' increased use of electronic payments - through mobile phones and bank cards, for instance - has increased the speed and scale of cash programmes, which should make it easier to link short and long-term cash programmes, where necessary, said Rehm.
Meanwhile, the use of cash transfers in the Hunger Safety Net programme in Kenya and the Productive Safety Net Programme in Ethiopia have shown that longer-term social protection approaches can be an effective alternative to recurrent emergency relief, according to Paul Harvey, a cash expert at Humanitarian Outcomes. These programmes, provide long-term, regular, unconditional cash transfers to vulnerable families on a large-scale, to boost their resilience.
Donors, governments and aid agencies should be looking at the resilience issue from both sides, said Harvey: how to scale up social protection in the face of a crisis, but also how to encourage governments to take short-term schemes as the starting point for longer-term protection. "The crux of the problem is to get development assistance to take disasters seriously, rather than getting humanitarians to do development," he told IRIN.
The impact of preventive emergency cash distributions on people's lives is starting to emerge, said Breyne. Studies of two ECHO-funded cash transfer programmes aimed at boosting nutrition (one of them linked with Action against Hunger), showed that fewer households limited the types of food they ate; the poorest households were able to access more land to produce rice; and malnutrition rates decreased by 44.5 percent, according to Breyne.
Other expected benefits include enabling households to build up their food stocks in advance of a shock; maintain access to health or education (if they ever had it); and limit their negative coping strategies. Given the chance, families "invest in their own livelihoods to avoid pulling their children out of school, and to limit their negative coping strategies such as deepening indebtedness, or selling off their harvest as soon as they have reaped it," said Rehm.
Cash is of course not a panacea, and making long-term and short-term schemes work can be complicated. Both short- and long-term large-scale transfer programmes must be well-run and transparent to avoid corruption and political interference; difficult questions must be addressed, such as: what is the tipping point for inclusion? What is the exit strategy? By how much are handouts increased depending on the shock? How do you ensure registration is fair and transparent? And how can such a scheme be affordable to a relatively poor government such as Niger's, where up to 40 percent of the population are considered poor?
If beneficiary targeting is not done well on either short- or long-term programmes, it can lead to anger and resentment among groups not included, which can boost inter-communal tension. Differing objectives of schemes will dictate who is involved, and these criteria must be clearly communicated to communities to abate tensions.
Targeting must be nuanced. Governments must not assume that those receiving subsidies are automatically going to be top of the list for emergency cash (there was overlap with food stamp receivers in the US after Hurricane Katrina but less than anticipated). It is often the poorest groups, targeted by aid agencies, who have been excluded from long-term social protection schemes, as they do not work, or are unregistered and thus hard to reach.
Likewise, giving households money to access services such as health care or education, will not help if such services do not exist or are of poor quality.
However, only by coordinating cash transfers with other protection programmes - such as school meals, free health care for under-fives, and other schemes - will they make a durable difference to people's resilience, concluded a 2012 International Food Policy Research Institute workshop.
Alongside cash transfers in emergencies, governments should also build up their emergency food stocks, and boost the agricultural production of small farmers, among other priorities, said Oxfam's Cissé.
Cash on the rise
Complexities aside, cash transfers now make up 15 percent of WFP's food security programmes - both emergency and longer term, said Anna-Lisa Conte, WFP's head of Cash for Change, and "most likely there is room for further growth in this area."
West Africa makes sense as a growth hot-spot, given its high dependence on cereal imports (even in good years) and its well-integrated markets, said Rehm, though she paid heed to access difficulties due to price hikes and heavy rain in the rainy season; and the current abnormal trade patterns in the Sahel's eastern basin.
But growth for growth's sake is not the organization's goal, said Conte. "What matters is the objective of the programme - if it is to provide food security, nutrition, shelter or water and sanitation. Then you see which tool is the most appropriate to reach that objective."