Despite her twisted spine and cataracts, Maphoka Tsolo, 91, still managed to lead the way down the steep narrow path behind her stone house in Mathebe, a small village in Mafeteng district, eastern Lesotho, determined to show why her orphaned great-grandchildren deserved the money from the government's cash grants scheme.
"With nothing growing here it is very difficult to take care of myself and the children," she said, pointing to her tiny plot of fallow land with a home made walking stick cut from a tree branch. She lost her husband and her three children "a very long time ago", and old age had brought nothing but hunger, physical pain and financial misery.
Her grandson disappeared eight years ago, so there was no one to work the rain-starved land. "He said he was going to look for work but he never came back." She had to stretch her 300 Maloti (US$39) monthly pension to support herself and the two children her grandson left behind.
Her situation is not uncommon: according to the Department of Social Welfare (DSW) 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 nearly two million population of this tiny landlocked country are HIV positive - one of the highest HIV prevalence rates worldwide.
Rescue in cash
At the beginning of 2009, Tsolo and her great-grandchildren were thrown a lifeline when the local Village Verification Committee (VVC) - consisting of the chief, a community councillor, two volunteers from caregiver groups, and a DSW representative - identified her household as one of the poorest and most vulnerable with children.
Being in the bottom 10 percent meant she would be eligible for a quarterly amount of $47 from the Lesotho Child Grants Programme (CGP), which would ease the poverty that prevented the children from having enough to eat, staying healthy and going to school.
Mantoa Sejake, a Senior Child Welfare Officer at the DSW, commented: "That might seem like a small amount, but for those that are targeted this is very meaningful." The money would help cover the cost of school fees, uniforms, health care and other needs.
The CGP has targeted some 5,000 orphaned and vulnerable children living in 1,250 child-headed households, low-income households caring for AIDS orphans, and other vulnerable children in three communities - Matelile in Mafeteng District, Semonkong in Maseru District, and Lebakeng in Qacha's Nek district - in the pilot phase of the programme.
The European Commission donated $7.3 million to the project, and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) provided technical assistance. The government eventually hopes to extend the programme throughout the country.
|Who is the most deserving? If we look at the indicators, we have divided the 'poor' category into three - poor, very poor and destitute - and we were focusing on destitute only|
How poor is poor enough?
Mohemmad Farooq, a UNICEF social policy specialist who helped design the programme, said around 60 percent of the population were living below the poverty line and the country's resources were limited, so prioritization of the most destitute households was crucial, yet extremely challenging.
"Giving people money is very sensitive. Who is the most deserving? If we look at the indicators, we have divided the 'poor' category into three - poor, very poor and destitute - and we were focusing on destitute only." He recognized the danger of creating a dependency on cash handouts, but also noted that the programme came at a time of rising desperation.
Years of chronic food insecurity due to erratic weather and soil erosion, the impact of HIV/AIDS, persistently high rates of unemployment - aggravated by retrenchments in Lesotho's textile industry and the mines in neighbouring South Africa, on which many people depended for survival - meant deepening poverty across the country.
"And with the financial crisis the cost of living has gone up; this hits the poorest of the poor the hardest," Farooq said. "Many people live just above the poverty line - it only takes a small shock to bring them down into poverty." Lesotho now imports 70 percent of its food, mostly from South Africa, making it particularly vulnerable to food and fuel price hikes in that country.
"At this stage social protection is not a choice. If you don't provide this type of coping mechanism people will go into negative coping mechanisms, like taking children out of school so that they can work, selling off assets - if they have any - or taking loans with high interest rates, for which they could end up in bonded labour, so the situation will get worse," Farooq said.
The grants are to be spent mainly at the discretion of the household, but the programme includes a social mobilization and sensitization campaign. "We have a community-based targeting mechanism [through the VVCs]; people are sensitized to learn that the money should benefit the children."
Attaching conditions like mandatory school attendance were not always feasible. "There is a problem with the supply side here - you can't say you will only give the grant if the child goes to school, when often there are no schools to go to in the first place," Farooq commented.
Primary education is free in Lesotho, but poverty keeps thousands of children out of school "because of the indirect costs like books, uniforms and transportation", he said.
Tsolo picked up her first payment in April and a second in July, and said she looked forward to the next one in October. The money had gone on food, a school uniform for the 12-year-old girl, shoes for the eight-year-old boy, and school fees; and, she shyly admitted, "I also bought shoes for myself."