A gift from the sky

When a place is so remote that you can only reach it on foot or horseback, a cash-in-transit operation is a real challenge - but Lesotho's Child Grants Programme (CGP) has overcome it with air support.

In Thaba Khubelu, a tiny village in the mountainous district of Qacha's Nek, about 400km from the capital, Maseru, some 250 households eagerly watched as a military helicopter touched down to deliver their first quarterly instalment of 360 maloti (US$48) each.

"It is a gift from the sky! Now I can buy clothes for myself and my brothers so we will look like all the other children when we go to school," said Mamello, 16, who received the cash in phase two of the CGP, launched on 20 October.

"I am so happy to get this money, we need it so much," she said. The programme aims to supplement the income of the poorest households caring for orphans and other vulnerable children (OVC) to ease the poverty that has prevented them from having enough to eat, staying healthy and going to school.

Unfortunate to be so lucky

Yet even with the free money Mamello was hardly the envy of the village: she lost both her parents and now has to care for two younger brothers. "They [parents] were very sick and it was painful to see them suffer. I had to stay out of school for some time," she said.

Speaking at the launch, Ahmed Magan, Lesotho representative of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), said: "We need to ensure the most needy families and children are the ones that are being reached and that benefit from social protection programmes."

This is not easy, considering the depth of poverty in this tiny landlocked country. UNICEF has noted that over half the population live below the poverty line and in a state of chronic food insecurity, which has been worsened by the global economic crisis.

Mphu Ramatlapeng, the Minister for Health and Social Welfare (HSW), said: "The grant is meant to benefit the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, not anyone else."

According to his department, Lesotho has more than 180,000 orphaned children, of which 55 percent have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. About 23.2 percent of the country's nearly two million people are HIV positive - one of the highest prevalence rates worldwide.

Ambitious scale-up

The project started in April 2009 with payments in the western district of Mafeteng, where access was not an issue. Now, having covered the most remote of the three pilot districts, the government hopes to extend the programme throughout the country.

Mohemmad Farooq, a UNICEF social policy specialist who helped design the project, said the current budget was expected "to take the programme to five districts of the country, and reach around 24,000 OVC in approximately 8,000 households by 2011". The European Commission donated $7.3 million to the initiative and UNICEF is providing technical assistance.

Photo: Tomas de Mul/IRIN
Vast areas of Lesotho are only accessible by foot or horseback

The pilot phase would help develop and test the systems for targeting, enrolment and payment of beneficiaries; monitoring, procurement and financial management; training stakeholders, public information and education. "Lessons learned will guide refinement of the Cash Grant in preparation for expanding into other districts," Farooq told IRIN.

"Social cash transfer programmes provide a predictable income for the poorest and most disadvantaged families to alleviate the burden of poverty, meet their basic needs and invest in children ... it will [also] create economic activity to contribute to the overall development of the country," he said.

"The Government is already looking at strategies for fund-raising, and for absorbing the cost of the programme in their national budget."

Ramatlapeng was optimistic that the project could be rolled out sustainably: "Through the grant, the government is aiming to reach about 60,000 children and ensure they attend school, access services and receive counselling and nutrition support."