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DEVELOPMENT: Welfare of Poverty-Stricken Families Depends on New Policy

Dingaan Mithi

LILONGWE, Oct 11 2010 (IPS) - For HIV-positive Tereza Chatsilizika, the monthly cash grant of 10 dollars she receives means that she can educate her disabled daughters and put food on the table.

Chatsilizika lost her husband in 2000 to an HIV-related illness, only to be diagnosed with HIV a few years later. Since then she has struggled to look after her two daughters, Aida, 14, and Eneless 12. Both girls are suspected of having contracted polio and as a result cannot walk. And because of her ill health, Chatsilizika was unable to work and support her family.

“Both of my children were not able to go to school and there was very little food on the plate,” says Chatsilizika of life before receiving the grant. But when a social cash transfer programme was piloted in her home district of Mchinji in 2006, life changed for Chatsilizika and her children.

The monthly cash grant of 10 dollars meant that both girls could attend school and even hire someone to push them there in their government-donated wheelchairs. “With the cash grants, both of my children have now re-entered school. My girls hope to do office work and eventually become top officials,” says Chatsilizika.

Since the 2006 introduction of a social cash transfer scheme by an NGO and government, thousands of Malawians like Chatsilizika have benefited. However, experts caution that the Malawian government’s delay in endorsing a draft social protection policy could place all current and future cash transfer programmes at risk.

Around 52 percent of Malawians live on less than a dollar a day and four million children across the country live in poverty. The growing HIV/AIDS crisis has exposed children to vulnerability and risks, as 13 percent of the country’s 7.3 million children under the age of 18 have lost their parents and caregivers to HIV-related illnesses.

But in 2006 the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), National AIDS Commission (NAC) and the Malawian ministry of economic planning and development cooperation started administering cash grants to poverty-stricken families affected by HIV/AIDS. Through the scheme, some 16,810 individuals from 4,106 households in Mchinji, Likoma Island, Salima and Machinga districts have benefited. In addition, government and UNICEF hope to reach 300,000 households with 900,000 children in all 28 districts of the country by 2015.

However, the lack of government guidelines on administering the grants has led to cases where households that are not in need have become beneficiaries. A monitoring and evaluation study conducted by NAC discovered that the district council in Salima erred and ended up offering cash transfers of 16 dollars to households that earned significant salaries instead of orphans and other ultra poor individuals and households. As a result about 5,000 orphans still have not received the support initially intended for them.

“The district council really made a mistake in the identification of beneficiaries. It was found that teachers, who are not poor, have been benefiting from the social cash transfer programme,” said Blessings Nkhoma, the Salima district council planning and development coordinator. It is not clear when the NAC will lift the suspension of the social cash transfer programme in the district.

But donors feel that with the appropriate policy in place, errors like this will be avoided. Currently the Malawian government is yet to endorse a draft social protection policy which provides guidelines to reducing poverty and providing poor households with welfare.

A social protection expert at UNICEF Malawi, Tayllor Spadafora says government needs to sustain the social cash transfer programme by endorsing the social protection policy through cabinet which, if not done, could scare donors away. This is because the policy ensures the strategic coordination of social protection initiatives with a common institutional and funding framework.

“Development partners are willing to support and contribute funding as long as there is government commitment, (they) also depend on it to provide fiscal support for sustainability,” says Spadafora.

According to Blessings Chinsinga, a development expert based at the University of Malawi, the lack of a policy makes it difficult for government to be accountable. He adds that the policy formulation process was donor driven, led by the World Bank and Department of International Development, and government needs to start debating it.

“Politicians are yet to be engaged in the process. Neither the lower level government structures nor the grassroots have been consulted or meaningfully involved in the process as yet,” says Chinsinga.

A 2007 World Bank stock-take of Malawi revealed that government, with the support of its donor partners, spent over 500 million dollars between 2003 and 2006 on humanitarian responses and social cash transfer-related activities.

Meanwhile, Ernest Chikuni, district social welfare officer in Mchinji district supports the continued existence of the social cash transfer programme. “It does not make people lazy, in fact the beneficiaries know how to budget the cash, they do not mis-use the resources,” says Chikuni.

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