A handout is a hand up

It may be anathema to the donor community but cash really is king. Pledges like those of seed, food and fertiliser support made at the recent World Food Summit are like band-aid for the 300-million Africans living on less than a dollar a day.

In contrast to these emergency, band-aid measures, there is a growing body of evidence showing that social protection, in the form of regular, predictable cash transfers to the most vulnerable groups in society, are remarkably effective.

Some of this evidence comes from South Africa, where study after study show pensions and grants have a measurable impact on health and nutrition in recipient households. Other evidence comes from a plethora of pilot projects in neighbouring countries.

Aside from health benefits, cash transfers have enabled beneficiaries to acquire assets such as livestock and seed, freed children to attend school (rather than having to engage in trade or begging to assist their families to survive) and bolstered local economies and markets (also boosting food production by providing incentives to small-scale farmers).

But, even with all this solid evidence, policy-makers and donors remain sceptical.

In South Africa there is resistance to expanding the grants system, while in neighbouring countries international donors procrastinate by continuing to demand more evidence and more pilots.

For their part, governments in Southern Africa refuse to consider ”handouts” or continue to insist that social protection is unaffordable. Ultimately, however, the question is not one of affordability but of political will.

In 2004, for example, Lesotho’s government instituted an old-age pension against the advice of international financial institutions. To make it more affordable, it made the grant amount fairly small and the age of eligibility fairly high at 70. Today, up to 77 000 pensioners and a quarter of all households benefit from the monthly grant of R200. The pension is so popular that to cancel it now would mean political suicide for the ruling party.

Lesotho shows that when there is political will, the money can be found. Surely, social protection needs to take priority over arms deals, new Parliament buildings, and any number of wasteful vanity projects?

The real question is not whether we can afford to implement or expand social protection, but whether we can afford not to. Unless we urgently implement policy options which address the needs of the poor in a manner that alleviates rather than aggravates the situation, and in a way that respects the poor as an economic asset rather a social burden, there could be catastrophic consequences. There are consequences for social, economic and political stability, of which recent episodes of civil unrest experienced across the continent from Senegal to South Africa may be only a glimpse.

We may, as one leading politician put it, be on the verge of a ”food revolution”.

John Rook is programme manager for the regional hunger and vulnerability programme (RHVP). Brett Davidson is a media consultant for RHVP

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