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POVERTY: Cash Transfers Transform Lives of Malawi’s Poor

Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Feb 6 2009 (IPS) - Malawi has taken major strides towards reducing poverty and hunger in the country. Government’s cash transfer scheme has managed to reach many of those usually unable to access grants due to lengthy and complicated bureaucratic processes and assessments.

Beneficiaries of Malawi's cash transfer scheme are nominated by local community leaders based on need. Credit:  Mick Yates

Beneficiaries of Malawi's cash transfer scheme are nominated by local community leaders based on need. Credit: Mick Yates

Regina Kondwerani is one of the beneficiaries of the scheme, which she says has saved her family from starvation. The 16-year-old from Mchinji district has been head of her household since her father died and her mother abandoned her children. For the past four years, she has been taking care of five siblings.

Before they started receiving the grant, life was tough for the Kondwerani children. "Sleeping on an empty stomach was not unusual for us. For four years, we had to do with one meal a day or none at all," said Kondwerani.

The teenager wakes up early every morning to collect firewood, fetch water, prepare food and make sure her brothers and sisters are bathed before they go to school.

Before the family qualified for the grant, the siblings’ education was put on hold, because the need to find food had been a daily priority. "We had to go scavenging for food that has been thrown-away in rubbish pits instead of going to school?" Kondwerani said.

But since they became part of the social cash transfer scheme two years ago, the welfare of her family has improved drastically. Kondwerani receives $19 a month, which is an average monthly income in a rural community in Malawi. "I am now able to provide for the whole family, and we are able to afford food," she said. The grant also enabled her to buy goats, chickens and fertiliser to grow maize.

Poverty reduction

Like all beneficiaries of the cash transfer scheme, which was launched in September 2006, Kondwerani’s household was nominated by a local Community Social Protection Committee (CSPC) made up of respected community members, including the chiefs of the area. The CSPC lists families in dire need and forwards those to the district Social Protection Sub-Committee (SPSC), a body of social workers and provincial government officials, which verifies and approves nominations.

CSPCs put forward names of the ultra poor, child-headed households, those unable to work due to disability, illness or old age. The money is disbursed to beneficiaries without any conditions or the need to fill out complicated application forms.

The amount of the monthly grant, which is coordinated through a partnership of the Malawian government, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the National AIDS Commission (NAC), is dependent on household size.

The smallest monthly grant is $4.20 for a one-person household. To encourage school enrolment and retention, an extra $1.30 is disbursed for children enrolled in primary school and another $2.60 for households with children in secondary school.

"It is also an investment in children's health and nutrition and protection of children from exploitation and abuse, such as child labour or early marriages," said UNICEF chief of social policy in Malawi, Mayke Huijbregts.

"Cash transfers have made a positive impact on the well-being of the poorest, and especially children, in the areas of health, nutrition, school enrolment, retention and performance," she explained.

The scheme also helped to reduce child labour from 53 percent to 18 percent in Malawi, enhanced food security and diversity, investments in livestock, housing, hygiene and clothes, Huijbregts further noted.

According to government statistics, 65 percent of Malawi's 13.1 million people live below the poverty line of less than a dollar per day.

More than four million children live in poverty, which is deep, widespread and characterised by low income, low literacy, food insecurity and high rates of child malnutrition, according to UNICEF. Almost half of Malawi’s children under the age of five are stunted due to malnutrition.

To make matters worse, 13 percent of the country's more than seven million children under the age of 18 have lost their parents, mostly to HIV and AIDS. As a result, more than half of children of primary school going age have dropped out because of poverty, hunger and cultural barriers.

Easy access to grants

Faced with such extreme poverty, the Malawian government had to ensure that available grants reach the poor quickly and efficiently. According to the Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a coalition of 100 civil society organisations, the cash transfer programme is well targeted to make a difference to the population’s welfare.

"The scheme works better than the farm input subsidy programme, for example, which is also being implemented by government, where the poor get seed and fertiliser regardless of their ability to farm or not," said MEJN executive director Andrew Kumbatira.

Preliminary survey data on the social cash transfer scheme show that the money is being used wisely by recipients and invested in meeting people’s immediate, basic needs. The grant is spent on soap, food, education materials, healthcare, clothing, shelter, livestock, poultry, seeds and fertiliser. Some families even manage to make small savings.

By the end of 2008, 12,000 households and 40,000 children have benefited from the scheme. Government aims to increase the number of households accessing the scheme to 250,000 by 2015, and the number of children benefiting from it to 700,000.

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