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MALAWI: Separating the ‘‘Ultra-Poor’’ from the Poor – Why?

Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, May 14 2009 (IPS) - A group of civil society organisations in Malawi is pushing for changes to the country’s controversial social cash transfer scheme which has caused tension in communities as it attempts to separate the poor from the ‘‘very poor’’ in a country where some 65 percent of people live on less than a dollar a day.

Some of the traditional leaders that decide who is poorer than who. Credit:  Pilirani Semu-Banda

Some of the traditional leaders that decide who is poorer than who. Credit: Pilirani Semu-Banda

Pilot programmes to test the scheme are underway in seven of Malawi’s 27 districts. Cash transfers have been proven to be effective in the reduction of poverty as households use cash in various ways to improve their livelihoods, from spending the money on food to education to agricultural production to even saving money and starting small businesses.

The ministry of women and child development and the ministry of economic planning and development are implementing the social cash transfer scheme, which was launched in September 2006.

Technical and financial assistance for the programme comes from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The Institute for Policy Research and Social Empowerment (IPRSE), which leads 50 non-governmental organisations advocating for social protection, argues that the scheme is creating problems.

The reason for this is its targeting of a category of ‘‘ultra-poor’’ in a country where most people live below the poverty line of less than one dollar per day.

IPRSE Director of Programmes and Development Paul Msoma says that the scheme attempts to separate the poorest from the poor. The question that has arisen is, ‘‘who is really poor and who is not poor enough to benefit from the programme’’, Msoma tells IPS in an interview.

IPRSE is concerned that, given the vast numbers of very poor people in Malawi, especially in the rural areas, providing assistance to a few of them will not make a great difference towards the country’s goal of reducing poverty and hunger.

‘‘If you go into a typical Malawi village, almost everyone is very poor yet the cash transfer scheme is targeting very few people,’’ Msoma points out.

The civil society grouping queries the system used to identify beneficiaries as it poses difficulties for communities. Recipients of the money from the scheme are nominated by a local community social protection committee (CSPC) which is composed of community members. These include the traditional leaders of the area and other respected members of the villages.

The CSPC draws up a list of households living in grim conditions and refers this to a district social protection sub-committee (SPSC), made up of social workers and provincial government officials. The SPSC verifies and approves nominations.

This process ‘‘is creating complications. The people who are equally poor are being asked to make decisions to make others better-off. There should be a better way of identifying beneficiaries,’’ contends Msoma.

He explains that the targeting of very few people is also causing ‘‘unnecessary tensions’’ in the poor communities.

In Mchinji, central Malawi, 65-year-old Malita Namalomba laments that her neighbours ‘‘despise’’ her. Namalomba, a widow, looks after seven grandchildren. Two of her children died within two years and she had to adopt her grandchildren.

‘‘I am happy that the cash transfer scheme has enabled me to look after all these children. The money makes me able to feed them all and send them to school,’’ she admits. But she is worried that other families living in poverty are unhappy with not benefiting from the scheme.

‘‘I was lucky that I was identified to benefit from the scheme. All my neighbours are poor and they need similar help. They despise me now and I can’t do anything about it,’’ says Namalomba.

The amount of money disbursed to beneficiaries like Namalomba is dependent on household size. The minimum grant is 4.20 dollars for a household of one person. The scheme also encourages school enrolment: an extra 1.30 dollars is granted for each child enrolled in primary school and 2.60 dollars for children in secondary school.

Nicholas Freeland, programme director at the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme (RHVP), agrees with the local NGOs that some negative lessons have indeed emerged from the pilot social cash transfer scheme.

The RHVP supports policy-makers and practitioners concerned with food security, social protection and vulnerability in southern Africa and is funded by the UK’s department for international development.

‘‘Community-based targeting is open to abuse. It does not work in a Malawian context to identify the most vulnerable people,’’ explains Freeland. This is because there is a little difference between the poorest households.

It is unfair and unethical to select only 10 percent of them to receive a transfer that will ‘‘leapfrog’’ them over almost equally poor members of the community. ‘‘Unless of course you re-target on a regular basis, which is complex and expensive,’’ states Freeland.

Experience in many other countries has shown that the best way to target the poorest in society is not to try to identify them individually but to use categories that are associated with a higher likelihood of poverty, such as elderly people, young infants, the disabled and women.

‘‘Such categories are much more easily understood by recipients and non-recipients alike, much less easy to exploit or corrupt, much simpler to administer and therefore much more politically acceptable,’’ Freeland tells IPS.

Despite these objections by NGOs, the Malawian government is planning on expanding the scheme. It is working on scaling up the cash transfers with an aim to eventually make them available to all districts in the country.

According to a government report, preliminary survey results indicate that the money is ‘‘properly’’ used by beneficiaries as it is invested in meeting people’s immediate, basic needs while some households are able to make some savings from the scheme.

The government has also come up with new guiding principles which include simplifying the programme so that it is well understood by communities.

Meanwhile, IPRSE has vowed to continue lobbying government to revisit the targeting of the social cash transfer scheme.

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