Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Restoring Human Dignity Thru Social Cash Transfer: The Liberia Success Stories And The Need For A National Social Protection Strategy

Three of the beneficiaries of the Liberian Social Cash Transfer Program including, 19-year-old Hawa, mother of two children, seated in the middle
Three of the beneficiaries of the Liberian Social Cash Transfer Program including, 19-year-old Hawa, mother of two children, seated in the middle

(LIBERIA) - Nineteen-year-old Hawa Kromah lost her parents during the war years (1989-2003). At 14, she turned mother of her first two children. Her children’s father left under the pretext of going to “hustle” and would never return. 

Her life was shattered—hopeless and preoccupied with an unbearable burden. However, today, everything has changed for the better after she became one of the beneficiaries of the social cash transfer program.

As she gave her testimony, tears set in my eyes, but I managed to control it. I saw many people in the hall, like me, rocking their heads front and back, left and right, unquestionably in compassion.

 It wasn’t a day dream or phantasm. It was neither a funeral discourse nor a thriller movie, but the moment caught everyone’s attention. Everyone!

 ”I was just 14 years old when I got my first child…and I now have two children and my small sister living with me,” the 19-year old divulged to the disbelief of her audience in the Tubmanburg Administrative Building—the capital of Bomi County.

 Many of us who initially saw Hawa took her as a little girl (a child) who may have escorted her aged father or mother to the program we were attending—a three-day regional consultation for the establishment of a social protection strategy and policy for Liberia.

 ”My mother and my father died in the war and the man who born by me went to gold mine [neighboring Gbarpolu County] and he never came back…, she went on, appearing as if she wanted to sob, exhibiting the childishness in her “maturity”. “But I thank God for the Social Cash Transfer (SCT) program that has changed my life and put my three children (one of them being her junior sister of 6) in school,” the stunt-looking Hawa stated.

 Indeed, Hawa is just one of 1,900 families benefitting from the pilot SCT program taking place in Bomi, the country’s poorest county.

 Up till now (over one month ago) I still do not believe that Hawa, as little and as young as she appears, is a mother of two children. But that’s the uncooked fact, and who am I to question the unquestionable! 

 Under normal conditions, people of Hawa’s age and size should be in school learning to prepare themselves for the future—to complete high school and/or college education, get a job and marry (the biggest dream of any young woman) and take care of her family. Unfortunately, however, she has become an illiterate mother of three children, even before she attained universal womanhood age of 18.

In a country where about 68% of the population is poor, and worse of all, living in the country’s poorest county, it didn’t require a Harvard graduate to declare that Hawa needed all the help in the world to enable her cater for herself and her three children—if they must survive, if they must go to school, if they must grow up to become responsible citizens, if they must live dignified lives. 

No wonder she remains all grateful to the social cash transfer program which she described as her mother and father and by extension her savior, which delivered her from the depth of the ocean of poverty.

 ”There was no support for us; no ma (mother), no pa (father), but I thank God for the social cash transfer people,” she stated Monday, March 5, 2012 in Tubmanburg when she, along with three other beneficiaries, gave testimony of how the program has transformed their lives.

 SCT and the Success

 The SCT pilot scheme was launched in 2010 to protect children living in poor and vulnerable households. Bomi County, organizers said, was selected to pilot the program because of its exceptionally high level of food insecurity. Bomi has one of the lowest levels of food consumption in the country.

 Fourteen years (1989-2003) of off-and-on civil conflict left the country’s infrastructure and economy in total shambles. Despite recent successive years of economic growth, levels of poverty remain high with about 84% of the population living on less than $1.25 per day some studies have found.

 It is estimated that out of the 48% of the Liberian population below the extreme poverty line, 50,000 households are extremely disadvantaged, labour-constrained (unable to work) and highly food insecure. Hawa finds herself here.

 As a form of social protection the SCT pilot scheme was initiated by the Government of Liberia to protect these children and families (of Hawa category) from food insecurity and the general deprivation caused by extreme poverty and household composition.

 Supported by UNICEF with financial grants from the European Union and the Government of Japan, the scheme is being piloted in Bomi County because of its exceptionally high level of food insecurity, as identified in the 2006 Comprehensive Food Security and Nutrition Survey.

 Beneficiary households receive monthly cash 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 enrolment, the program is intended to provide an incentive for education, discourage child labour and provide caregivers with additional resources for school-related costs such as clothing, exercise books and pencils.

 As of March 2012, 1,900 families in Bomi were receiving support through this program, and their lives will never slip back into the dens of poverty from which they have been lifted. Households of four or more people receive roughly LD$1,750 (approximately US$25) per month. An estimated 54 per cent of beneficiaries are children.

 Like Hawa, several other beneficiaries testified that the program was indeed a life-changing endeavor and called on the government and partners to keep it up.

More testimonies

Like the case of Hawa, Nancy Johnson, beautifully attired in African wrapper (lappa) was overwhelmed when she took the stage to testify. A mother of six fatherless children, Nancy explained that she believes that her life and those of her kids will never be the same as beneficiaries of the SCT program. “I just want to thank God and the social cash transfer people for turning my life around,” the middle-aged woman noted. “Life was too tough for me and my children; we used to wash people’s clothes before we get two cups of rice to eat”.

Nancy now looks healthy. All of her children (4 boys, 2 girls) are in school like others in the community. She no longer lives in a shanty shelter. She has built a better house and a small table before it to sell wares (basically foodstuff). She is no longer a laughing stock among her colleagues; she has considerable amount of clothes for the family and she, too, can now fix her hair. “You see the way I look healthy, I was not like this before,” she divulged. “I and my children had just one set of clothes, but the social cash transfer has changed our lives.”

Zwannah Morris, a diabetic, said the SCT, like his other beneficiaries, turned the hopeless direction of his life to a positive one. Now he sends his two motherless children (wife deceased) to a Catholic school and feed them with the monthly SCT assistance. Most importantly, he saves some of the money to add to what he gets from other sources to buy his drugs.

“I got sick and everybody abandoned me. Because of the sickness (diabetes) I don’t have the strength to work to earn a living,” he continued. “Life was tough for me and I became a beggar…but I am no more a beggar after the social cash came to rescued me.”

From one pair of trousers, Zwannah now has a dozen. By saving portion of his monthly SCT allowance, he generated funds to start construction of a house for himself. A politician saw the unfinished structure and decided to complete it for use as his (politician) campaign office in last year’s election. Following the election, he explained, the politician turned over his new house and he now boasts of a new home. “I give all the praise to God and the social cash transfer program; it is really helping us the poor and weak people,” he claimed.

Right opposite the Klay Check Point (Bomi) lives another beneficiary of the SCT, Zoe Davies. Mothered to nine children and husbandless, Zoe, appearing to be in her mid 40s, had lived in a single room with all her belonging and seven of her nine children until the SCT team met her.

She is now reconstructing and expanding her house with three of the kids in school for the first time. “I just thank God for this program,” she said excitedly. “My children were never going to ‘know book’ [get educated] just like me, but three of them going to school now and I am saving money for the other ones to go next year.”

“I have joined a club and when I get that money I will start selling cold board (cook rice) at the [Klay] check point and the money from there will take good care of me and my children and make my house look better,” she told this writer at the house which was being expanded by three men. She said though the money given her was not sufficient, she was investing it into good venture, and in coming months, those contributing the SCT would be proud of how they have turned her life around. 

The testimonies of these beneficiaries are indeed overwhelmed with success stories of the SCT program and suggest that government and its partners can do more, through a well coordinated social protection policy, as being done in several countries around the world including 26 in Africa, to restore dignity to some 50,000 ultra poor Liberians across the country.

 The Need For SP Policy In Liberia

Social Protection, according to the World Bank, is “public interventions meant to assist individuals, households and communities in better managing income risks.” Through this assistance, Social Protection aims to contribute to poverty reduction and equitable, sustainable growth, specifically focusing on (i) protection to assure adequate support for the poor; (ii) prevention to provide security to the vulnerable people; and (iii) promotion to increase the chances for greater productivity and  higher incomes.   

Liberia has no cohesive social protection policy in place. There’s greater need for one. Various groups and organizations including government and donors work on fragmented programs in the sector, with little or no impact, according to research.

According to a study commissioned by the United Nations in December 2008 on Social Protection Issues in Liberia, out of the country’s nearly 3.5 million population, 300,000 households (48% of the population) live in extreme poverty. Members of these households are not able to meet their most basic needs in terms of food, shelter, clothing, basic health care and education.

This, the study found, is partly due to income poverty and partly due to a lack of social services such as basic health care and education. Neither the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) nor most other policy or planning documents contain interventions that are specifically tailored to increase the income of extremely poor households.

Of the 300,000 extremely poor households, approximately 50,000 households (8% of all households) are at the same time labour constrained. “They are households with no adult members that are fit for productive work. They consist of people who are too old or too young to work or disabled or chronically sick,” the report of the study noted, adding, “As they are labour constrained they are not able to access the labour based interventions planned in the PRS. They are the worst off and at the same time the most neglected category of households in Liberia.” 

These are the people that the social protection policy will benefit.

That’s why as the country prepares to become a middle income state by 2030, relevant government ministries (Planning, Health and Gender), along with international partners, have seen the need to establish a national social protection strategy.

Quite frankly, without social protection of the poorest categories of the population, the peace building efforts and the efforts to build an inclusive society based on justice and the protection and provision of human rights cannot succeed and the MDGs will not be achieved. Even economic growth will not be sustainable if a substantial part of the children of Liberia grow up under conditions that deny them the right to food, to basic health care and to education.

 Social protection is an investment in human capital which ensures that all children have the opportunity to become healthy, well educated and productive members of the society.

Like other West African countries, Liberia has a large number of extremely poor and vulnerable households. This is partly due to income disparities, which existed already before the war, and is partly the result of many years of armed conflict.

The study found that in addition to income poverty, which is reflected in the high number of absolutely poor and extremely poor households, the country also suffers from scarcity of social services (education, health, water and sanitation) and from the inadequacy of physical infrastructure (especially roads), of economic infrastructure (financial services like rural banks) and of administrative and security related infrastructure.

Most affected by all these deficits are vulnerable groups like children, women, the elderly and people living with disabilities and living with HIV and AIDS. In addition there are large groups of people who suffer from specific problems resulting from the war: Internally displaced people, people who fled to neighboring countries and are repatriated, combatants who have been demobilized and have to be reintegrated.

There are also orphans many of whom are living in sub-standard orphanages, former child soldiers and women and girls, who have been abducted, used as slaves and exposed to sexual violence by the different armies and rebel groups, the study outlined.

The long list of social protection needs given above shows that income poverty is only one of the problems faced by a large number of Liberians. However, income in cash and/or kind is the precondition for meeting basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, basic health services, sanitation and education. Lack of income results in reduced access to basic needs.

With this in mind, it is unquestionable that Liberia needs a consistent social protection policy and program which will guide the process of designing, testing and eventually implementing social protection interventions.
The social protection policy has to complement the PRS and other policies of government. 

It will have to be elaborated in a joint effort led by the Government and supported by civil society and development partners.

Meanwhile, though Hawa has not finally jumped out of the rivers of poverty, to a greater extent, the SCT program has brought her significant relief and close to the shores of dignity. She can now try her best, in addition to the monthly cash assistance from the program, to swim out of the river and climb the ladder out of the dungeon of poverty. This could help her live a dignified life like others in her community.

By D. Kaihenneh Sengbeh/ +231886 586 531

Posted on on African Brother and Comrade Sengbeh's Weblog 

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