Equity Case Studies

Equity Case Study: Liberia - Transformative transfers - reaching the most vulnerable through social cash transfers

© ©UNICEF/LIB/2011/Pirozzi
Through an innovative Social Cash Transfer (SCT) programme piloted in Bomi county since November 2009, Liberia now addresses the needs of the most vulnerable, especially children.

By Abhijit Shanker

19 December 2011 - Liberia faced a number of challenges at the end of its civil war in 2003; fourteen years of conflict had left the country with a devastated education system, infrastructure in ruins, and some of the worst human development indicators in the world.

Today, elevated poverty rates and a heavy reliance on shock-susceptible food imports contribute to Liberia’s persistently high level of food insecurity. Even before the food price crisis hit in 2008, 51 per cent of Liberians had unacceptably low levels of food consumption. In Bomi and the three counties that make up the south-eastern corner of the country, levels of food insecurity reach or exceed 75 per cent.1 While food insecurity impacts all members of a household, its effects are particularly pernicious on children. Inadequate food and nutrition have lifelong health consequences and negatively impact children’s ability to learn, which affects all their other life opportunities.

Through an innovative Social Cash Transfer (SCT) programme piloted in Bomi county since November 2009, Liberia now addresses the needs of the most vulnerable, especially children. With partnership support from UNICEF and funding provided by the European Commission and the Government of Japan, the programme aims at reaching the most disadvantaged in Liberia’s most food insecure areas - families that are both extremely poor and have no one available to work outside the home. These households include those headed by children, the elderly, disabled, and those with many dependents. The programme allows families to identify and meet their own priorities through unconditional cash transfers, while providing additional incentives for school enrollment. The cash transfers have enabled families to invest in their homes, their children’s educations, improved food production and income-generating opportunities. The programme currently covers 1,900 families, including 4,500 children.


Despite successive years of economic growth, levels of poverty in Liberia remain extremely high, with 64 per cent of the population falling below the absolute poverty line and 48 per cent falling below the extreme poverty line.2 Those below the extreme poverty line suffer from chronic hunger and are unable to meet their most basic needs. Elevated poverty rates and a heavy reliance on shock-susceptible food imports contribute to Liberia’s high level of food insecurity. An estimated 50,000 households are both extremely poor and labor constrained. These households cannot access labor-based interventions such as temporary employment projects and have no formal means of support.

The SCT pilot programme, launched in November 2009, was created to protect children and the poor and vulnerable households in which they live from the worst impacts of food insecurity and the general deprivation caused by extreme poverty. Through improved food consumption and incentives for education enrollment, the goal is long-term poverty reduction. Bomi County was chosen as the location for the pilot because of its exceptionally high level of food insecurity, as identified in the 2006 Comprehensive Food Security and Nutrition Survey.

The SCT programme is operated by the Government of Liberia, with partnership support from UNICEF and funding provided by the European Commission and the Government of Japan. It is administered by the National Social Cash Transfer Secretariat (SCT Secretariat), which is part of the Ministry of Gender and Development. The programme is overseen by the National Social Protection Steering Committee housed in the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs. The first payments began in November 2009 and the programme was officially launched in February 2010. The pilot has now reached across the entire county and is providing benefits to 1,900 households each month.

Identifying Households. Households are selected for participation in the programme based on two key criteria: they must be both extremely poor and labor constrained. For the purpose of the programme, extreme poverty is determined by a household’s access to food, level of material assets and alternative means of support. Labor constraints can be caused by three different factors:

>> No adult between the ages of 19 and 65 resides in the household;
>> The household contains an adult between 19 and 65 years old, but he or she cannot work because of a chronic illness or disability; or
>> There is an adult between 19 and 65 years old, but that person is not able to work because he or she is caring for at least three young children, a disabled person, or elderly people.

Moving from clan to clan, monitors from the SCT Secretariat conduct two rounds of interviews with each household to determine whether they meet both criteria. The lists of presumptively eligible households are then reviewed by town chiefs and county social protection committees, who provide any necessary corrections based on their local knowledge. After a training session for chiefs, community members and beneficiaries, the payment process begins.

Monthly Transfers. Beneficiary households receive monthly transfers that vary according to the size of the household, with additional sums provided for each child enrolled in school. While the transfer is not conditioned on school enrollment, the programme is intended to provide an incentive for education, discourage child labor and provide caregivers with additional resources for education-related costs such as clothing, exercise books, and pencils. The monthly SCT allocation amounts are as follows:

SCT Allocation Amounts
1 Person Household (HH) 700 Liberian Dollars (10 USD)
2 Person Household (HH) 1,050 LD (15 USD)
3 Person Household (HH) 1,400 LD (20 USD)
4 Person Household (HH) 1,750 LD (25 USD)
Additional amount for each child in primary school 150 LD (approx 2 USD)
Additional amount for each child in secondary school 300 LD (approx 4 USD)
Average payment size per HH 1,750 LD (25 USD)

The allocation amounts were designed to fill the gap between the national per capita gross domestic product (211 USD) and the annual per capita spending of extremely poor individuals.

Of the approximately 7,000 individuals currently benefitting from the programme, nearly two-thirds are children. An additional 17 per cent are over the age of sixty-five.

Cash transfer allocations are provided at 29 different distribution points, such as schools and community centers throughout the county, with monthly payments made in Liberian dollars to beneficiaries or their designees, who must display a programme identification card and sign for each payment. The process is overseen by the SCT Secretariat and administered by a commercial bank, whose representatives facilitate the process. The use of a commercial bank for payment delivery has added an additional layer of financial security and allowed the government to increase its implementation capacity on the beneficiary-focused aspects of the programme.

Progress and Results

As of October 2011, 1,900 families in all 18 of Bomi’s clans were receiving transfers. A total of approximately 7,000 individuals are benefitting directly from the programme, of which 63 per cent are children. These and other key statistics are outlined below:

Key Statistics from the Cash Transfer Pilot
1900 Households currently receiving transfers
7123 Total number of individuals currently benefitting
16 Number of child-headed households currently included
3.8 Average recipient household size
63 Percentage of children among current beneficiaries
17 Percentage of elderly among current beneficiaries
59 Percentage of recipient children in primary school
7 Percentage of recipient children in secondary school
59 Percentage of recipient households headed by females
56 Percentage of elderly-headed recipient households

Results to date. A mid-term assessment of the programme was conducted in September 2010. The assessment covered progress in programme implementation, suggestions for refining programme design (particularly with regard to the targeting process), and an action plan for implementing the recommended alterations. Overall, the assessment showed positive results with respect to the implementation process and the anecdotal evidence that was gathered about the programme’s efficacy in reducing vulnerability, increasing school enrollment, and enabling longer-term investments in both physical and human capital.

Interviews conducted with beneficiaries in several different clans offer clear evidence about the value of transfers for participating households. One of the most common uses for transfers is investment in home improvements, often in the form of replacing thatch roofing with zinc or dirt floors with cement. Other households use portions of their transfers to bolster their food consumption or to pay educational costs for their children. Some recipients reported using their transfers to hire labor for planting food crops. Finally, recipients are also making investments in income-generating opportunities with their transfers, some through the purchase of small livestock and others through petty trading.

An external evaluation of the programme is underway and its results, expected in early 2012, will provide a comprehensive look at how families are using their transfers and the impacts that the transfers have had on the nutrition, education, economic, and health status of participating families and their communities.


Liberia’s fragile post-conflict environment presents severe constraints in government capacity and conditions of exceptional poverty. The SCT pilot process has confronted major challenges and learning opportunities, many of which have resulted in mid-course adjustments to the programme’s design and implementation.

Arbitrary limit setting. The original programme design combined two conflicting priorities - provision of benefits to families that were both labor constrained and extremely poor, while simultaneously limiting participation to 10 per cent of the population in the county. Each community was allowed to include in the programme only a fixed percentage of its families, regardless of the number that met the vulnerability criteria.

While Liberia’s exceptionally high level of poverty necessitates that programme participation be limited in some respects, the 10 per cent cap did not adequately reflect the variety of needs among communities within the county. As part of a series of changes midway through the pilot, the strict cutoff was eliminated. Under the new mechanism, every household that meets the participation criteria is included in the programme. As a result, the poorest communities have participation rates above 10 per cent, while the relatively better-off areas have slightly lower participation rates. Overall, the number of beneficiaries has not changed significantly, but the distribution of participating families is no longer arbitrarily determined.

Volunteerism in context. The programme originally relied heavily on the use of community volunteers to assist with basic programme administration. While initially successful, this design element proved problematic. After the first year of the project, those who had originally agreed to serve in volunteer roles began demanding payment to continue the services, and volunteer participation dropped precipitously in several communities. Liberia’s high levels of unemployment and expected volunteerism have made the problem a common one for programmes in a variety of sectors. While an ideal solution has not been identified, the next phase of implementation will benefit from the addition of government staff to take on some of the monitoring and community notification roles that had been handled by volunteers.

Lessons Learned

Families know their needs. Since the pilot began, periodic interviews of programme beneficiaries have revealed that participants have generally made good use of the cash transfers, in a variety of different ways. In some communities, most households use the transfers to pay educational expenses for their children. In others (for example, in concession areas with better quality schools and lower costs), households tend to invest the transfers in food production. This variance of uses reaffirms the value of direct cash versus in-kind transfers in allowing families to identify, prioritize and meet their needs.

Communities talk. When the Liberia SCT programme began, it relied heavily on the involvement of communities to identify and verify vulnerable households. As the programme expanded beyond the first few communities, individuals discussed the questions and informed one another on how to respond to questions and qualify for the programme. Household lists became longer and inclusion errors increased. To address growing concern for list accuracy, the targeting process was made more objective. The new process independently verifies the labor and poverty status of all households and then involves community leaders to verify lists of eligible households. This change has decreased inclusion errors and manipulation of beneficiary lists.


Given the limited capacity of the government to take on all portions of programme administration, the SCT pilot followed the course of other social protection interventions in Liberia by partnering with a private bank for the delivery of payments. Government staff prepares the payrolls for approval and verify identification cards and payment eligibility, while bank staff handles distribution of the cash payments. This division of labor has allowed the government to focus on core programme activities with bank support. This arrangement has also provided most beneficiaries with valuable first interactions with the formal banking sector. As banking services expand across the country (there are not yet any banks in Bomi county), this linkage could be explored to help improve financial literacy among beneficiaries and their communities. The programme also provides each beneficiary with an identification card, frequently the first that anyone in the recipient families has ever had. While these cards are not yet linked to a broader system of social services, they can serve as a gateway for other entitlements as the government is able to deliver them.

Next Steps

Expansion. While the final evaluation of the project is underway, its initial successes have paved the way for additional funding to continue and expand the programme over the next three years. In the coming months, the programme will move to other food insecure areas, most likely those in the southeast of the country. The targeted counties have suffered a great deal of historical exclusion and have extremely limited access to roads and other infrastructure. Compounding those challenges, the counties have also seen a heavy influx of Ivoirian refugees over the past year, and they are struggling to support a growing population on very limited resources. These challenges will make for a very complex programming environment, but they also underscore the need to focus on these areas to address Liberia’s serious equity gaps.

Graduation. While many beneficiaries of the programme - including the elderly, disabled, and chronically ill - will likely be permanent participants, others are making substantial gains in their economic self-sufficiency as a result of the transfers. This success has happened much more quickly than originally anticipated. As the programme continues beyond the pilot phase, these families will eventually be included in a graduation programme that will likely include both life and livelihood skills training as well as a grant to help launch activities for self-support. In developing the graduation programme, two key concerns must be addressed: first, to avoid graduated families slipping back into extreme poverty, success must not be declared too early, and families must be carefully monitored both before and after the graduation programme; second, the incentives of the programme must be structured in such a way that graduation is an attractive option and successes are not hidden in order to maintain eligibility for the original benefits.

Integrated Service Delivery. The ultimate success of the programme can be significantly magnified by increasing the access that participating households have to other social, education, and health services. In the coming months, the programme will be expanded to provide integrated delivery of these services. As beneficiaries gather at community payment points each month, a different government ministry or partner will be on hand to provide a service to beneficiary families and other members of the community. These services include mobile birth registration, vaccination, school registration, WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) training and HIV/AIDS awareness. The provision of additional services directly into communities will advance three programmatic goals simultaneously: (i) increasing access to and utilization of services among the most vulnerable; (ii) expanding the capacity of county-based officials to deliver services, and (iii) minimizing potential tension among beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries by providing a service to all members of a community.



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