Drought in Zimbabwe: Getting cash for food into people’s hands

Laurie Lee
"My children want to go to school, they want to eat, they want to bathe... I am really stressed out because of the drought," says Betty Manyetu from Masvingo province in Zimbabwe

East and Southern Africa is suffering a terrible drought as a result of El Niño. Zimbabwe is one of the most badly affected countries with an estimated 4.2 million people – over a quarter of the population – considered likely to be hungry by the peak hunger period of January to March 2017.

I visited some of the worst affected parts of southern Zimbabwe and was shocked by just how dry it was. The soil has turned into sand and is blowing away. We were told by communities in Mberengwa that they had not seen rain since January 2016. Government agriculture officials said the villagers last managed to have a meaningful harvest in 2009.

Dried out riverbed in Zimbabwe
A dried-out riverbed in Zimbabwe

This affects the poorest people worst, because they depend on their own small farms for most of their food and income. And you can’t grow food without water.

It affects children especially. Infants who are malnourished in their first two years of life will always be disadvantaged. They have worse health, lower educational attainment – paying school fees is difficult for most rural communities – and lower wages as adults than children who get a good start in life.

Zimbabwe needs to manage water resources better to reduce the impacts of droughts, which will increase with climate change. CARE is addressing this through the construction of small dams which gather run-off water during the rainy season which can then be used in food gardens all year round.

But in the meantime, people need extra help now.

A group of people meeting under a tree
A CARE staff member informing community members about the cash assistance programme

Life-saving cash

In order to help the very poorest and hungriest people in Zimbabwe, the UK government has asked CARE to lead a programme – working with World Vision – to provide small monthly cash payments by mobile phone or SIM cards to over 72,000 families (360,000 people) so that they can afford the minimum necessary food to avoid malnutrition.

Providing humanitarian emergency aid as cash instead of traditional CARE packages of food is relatively new, especially in Zimbabwe. But CARE’s long history of promoting Village Savings and Loan Associations, and using mobile phones to transfer money, means that we know just how powerful it is to put cash in the hands of poor people.

No-one knows better than them what they need – they just lack the money to buy it.

How does it work?

The first thing we have to do is decide which families most need the help. First, we work out – in consultation with the local authorities – which wards are most short of food. A ‘ward’ is the smallest administrative unit in Zimbabwe. A ward will typically have a population of a few thousand people and in rural areas will contain a few villages.

Our CARE team then visits each of those wards and assesses each household against a number of criteria – for example, crop harvest below 50kg of cereal, households with pregnant or lactating mothers and other high nutrition needs, households with below average income, child-headed households with no support.

How does it help people?

The programme targets the poorest 10-15% of the population in the most drought-affected areas. In the village in Mberengwa I visited, 50% of families qualified as very vulnerable. So you can see that it was a very hungry village.

One woman, Catherine Chikunya, aged 67, told me there were six people in her house. In the past, aid from CARE used to be in the form of bulgur wheat, peas and oil.

She said receiving cash allowed them to buy a more varied food basket resulting in a more nutritious diet.

And she was planning to buy seeds in October 2016 ready for planting, if the rains come this season.

Another woman told us that she had used her September 2016 transfer to buy 50kg of maize meal – the staple diet in Zimbabwe – 5kg of beans and 5 litres of cooking oil. That is what they’d eat for the  month. Additionally, she was able to pay the school levy for one of her children.

How much money do people get?

Initially they got $5 per person per month – which is a LOT less than the $1.25 a day that is seen as the global extreme poverty line. Clearly, this amount cannot cover the full cost of people’s food needs, but it is meant to be enough to ensure the family can afford those needs by topping up the small income and food production they still have.

We monitor food prices every two weeks, and because of rising prices, we decided in August 2016 to increase the amount from $5 per person per month to $7 per person per month. And in October, DFID (the UK government Department for International Development) provided a one-off top up.

At this time of year families are expected to pay school fees. It is also planting time. So in order to grow food in the coming months, they need money to buy seeds now. Because it’s cash, it’s up to them how they use this additional payment. But people in the village we met in Mberengwa district confirmed that school fees and seeds is how they would use it.

How do people get the money?

Each month, the payments are made by electronic transfer to a SIM card. If people already have a mobile phone, we use that number. If people didn’t have a mobile phone, CARE negotiated with the mobile companies so people could buy a SIM card for just 25 cents, instead of the normal price of 50 cents. They can then borrow a mobile phone, or use the mobile phone company agent’s phone, to ‘cash out’ their electronic transfer – in other words, exchange the electronic voucher on their phone for money.

How do we know it’s working?

Communities in Bvute ward of Mberengwa district told us that they were receiving their money as expected. But we don’t just rely on individual anecdotes. Every month we survey 2% of the households in the programme. That’s 1,500 families. As a result, we know that over 90% of cash transfers are used to purchase food.

We know that in October 2015, 12% of families were suffering severe hunger, and 51% moderate hunger. By June 2016, none were suffering severe huger, and only 10% moderate hunger.

And we know that another impact of the project has been the increase in women’s control of household budget. The increase in women deciding household spending probably contributes to spending the cash transfer on food.

Are there any problems?

Zimbabwe is running out of cash: a large balance of trade deficit in the Zimbabwean economy has led to a lack of dollars in circulation. Because of the shortage of hard currency in Zimbabwe – there is simply not enough money in circulation – we are currently finding that some mobile phone company agents don’t have enough cash coming in from other customers to let them ‘cash out’ all of the people in their area receiving an e-transfer.

In September 2016 we measured that 30% of the people receiving cash transfers had some challenges in ‘cashing out’ their mobile phone payment. Most of these people had to wait a few days, or buy food from food sellers who accept the electronic vouchers on their phones as payment. This is not ideal because it limits where they can spend their money.

So I’m very pleased that CARE is working with DFID flexibly to test new ways of ensuring the programme can continue to work despite these challenges.

Part of the idea of cash programmes is to keep local markets working, so DFID is trying to help ensure grain importers can keep shops filled. And we are working with our mobile phone partners, Ecocash and OneWallet, to ensure their agents have enough currency to let people ‘cash out’ their e-payment. We will monitor carefully whether these innovations have an impact not just in the country as a whole but in the areas most in need.

Is cash better than food?

Let’s not be dogmatic about it. There will still be times when food distribution remains the most appropriate humanitarian response in an emergency – primarily when food supplies are not readily available in local shops and markets. However, we are seeing more and more emergency (and non-emergency) situations in which cash is a better first option when possible. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Choice. Giving people cash rather than food gives them the choice and transfers power from NGOs and governments to people themselves. It doesn’t tell people what they must do. It empowers them – especially when we include some education with the programme – to do what they know is best for them.
  • Markets. Providing cash rather than food also helps local shops and markets to survive crises. The risk of food distributions is that they replace and even squeeze out what is left of the normal economy for buying and selling food. And the danger is that when the food aid ends, that local market system will no longer be there to sell food to those villages. A cash programme relies on the local market working, and helps it to do so.
  • Efficiency. Even after all of the work we do to assess who needs the payments, to set up contracts with mobile phone companies, to set up hotlines, to explain the system to local communities, and to monitor what is going, as much as 73% of the budget is going straight into the pockets of poor people. This is much better than most food aid programmes and many other cash programmes.
  • Financial inclusion. Zimbabwe is adopting digital payment methods very fast. And in the longer term that could be very good for the economy and for ensuring poorer people get easier access, through mobile phone money systems, to financial services – which is a key objective for CARE because it can transform people’s life chances.

When you have very little money you need to be very good at managing it to survive and prosper. Access to financial services can help people to save money for future use. This means they can be more resilient when they are hit with a shock, such as a medical bill or a poor harvest. It also means they can pay for bigger items like school fees, or invest in small business ideas to increase their income – and so start a virtuous cycle out of poverty.

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A version of this blog was first published on The Huffington Post Blog

Laurie Lee's picture

Laurie Lee is Chief Executive of CARE International UK – Read his blog posts on our Insights policy and practice website