Malawi, 7 September: Cash transfer programme helps the poorest families survive
By Shantha Bloemen
MCHINJE DISTRICT, Malawi, 7 September 2010 - For two years, Rozina Chimbalani has struggled to feed, clothe and school the four grandchildren left in her care after her daughter died. Across Malawi, this has been a painfully common story, as for more than two decades HIV has shattered families and left more than a million children orphaned.
Now 77, Ms. Chimbalani is too old to find work and her small field can’t produce enough maize (corn) to last the family until the next harvest. Kind neighbours have always helped out when they could, but the children – now ranging in age from 7 to 15 years old – often get by on just one meal a day.
Meanwhile, it has been a struggle to keep the children in school. "I want the best for my grandchildren, but it is hard when I have nothing to give them," said Ms. Chimbalani.
Poorest of the poor
She is hardly alone. Almost half of children in Chipala village, located in Malawi’s Mchinje district, are stunted from poor nutrition. Although many enroll at the free local primary school, the expense of school uniforms and books means that only three out of four children will actually graduate.
Despite the progress Malawi has made towards achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goal to halve poverty and hunger, almost three-quarters of the country’s population is estimated to live under the poverty line. The country is ranked amongst the poorest in the world.
But a new cash distribution programme – initiated by UNICEF in 2006 to reach the poorest of Malawi's poor – is helping the country make strides towards reaching the international poverty reduction goal.
“The cash transfer scheme is trying to reach households that have no labour capacity, which often translates to households of grandparents, of people with a disability or of child-headed households,” explained UNICEF Malawi Chief of Social Policy Mayke Huijbregts, whose team helped develop the programme and has advocated for its expansion.
Creating a safety net
Supported by the Australian and British Governments, the plan is part of a regional scheme to help the millions of children left orphaned and vulnerable by the ravages of HIV and AIDS in eastern and southern Africa. Mrs. Chimbalani’s is one of some 28,000 families taking part in the programme, which is currently being piloted in 7 of Malawi’s 28 districts.
The idea of creating a social safety net for the poorest people in developing countries has been gaining momentum in recent years.
In Malawi’s cash transfer scheme, local people volunteer as part of a committee that helps to identify those in need of assistance. The committee members then drop in on each recipient family twice a month to check on their situation and provide advice on using the monthly grant.
Jim Wotchi, one of five assistant social workers in Mchinje district, says the verification process for selecting recipients is extremely rigorous. “There are many poor people who are barely surviving, so it is often difficult to determine the cut-off point," he explained.
Having made the list two years ago, Mrs. Chimbalani clutched her identity card on a recent Wednesday as she waited at the local primary school to collect her monthly $14 allotment. Her first purchase was some maize. Then she checked with the tailor to see if her 11-year-old granddaughter’s school uniform had been mended before making her way back to the family’s one-room mud brick home to prepare the evening meal.
Delivering the cash handouts each month in an area with a limited road network and few mobile phones is difficult. A small team of account clerks from the district office travel to more than 94 pay points to reach the poorest 10 per cent of the population.
Recent data suggest that the scheme is making strides. A one-year evaluation that compared 400 households receiving grants with 400 similar households not receiving them demonstrated success, said Ms. Huijbregts.
“The findings showed us magnificent impact on the welfare of children and their families, especially in accessing social service,” she said. “Children who were not in school are now in school because they can afford a uniform. We’ve seen cash multiplying in the community, so many more people are benefiting from the cash in the local economy and contributing to poverty reduction.”
The Malawian Government has agreed to extend the scheme nationwide over the next five years –but only if it can find additional funding support.
For Mrs. Chimbalani’s part, she has used some of the cash transfer grant to invest in a pig, which has given birth to six piglets.
“This scheme has changed our life,” she said.