DAKAR (AlertNet) – Many aid groups responding to a looming hunger crisis in West Africa have made cash-for-work schemes a key part of their effort to help people threatened by severe food shortages.
These initiatives involve paying people for community tasks with money or vouchers that can be exchanged for food in local stores.
More than 11 million people face a food crisis in the Sahel region south of the Sahara as a result of bad harvests from drought and erratic rainfall as well as high prices for staples, the United Nations says.
Claude Jibidar, deputy regional director of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) in West Africa, and Julien Jacob, head of food security and livelihoods programmes at Action Against Hunger (ACF), explain to AlertNet why cash initiatives are common in the Sahel this year.
Why are most aid groups responding to the Sahel crisis doing cash schemes?
Julien Jacob: The problem we are having in the Sahel is one of economic access to food. In most places where we (ACF) work food is available on the market but the prices are very high, higher than what is usually the case at this time of the year. This is due to low production as well as high prices of such cereals on the international market. As a result, the most vulnerable people don’t have the means and purchasing power to buy this food.
Our aim in running such cash initiatives … is to allow these vulnerable people to access this food directly on the local market and this can be done through cash transfers and a voucher system.
Cash is more popular at the moment because we understood that people need cash to buy food and it can be done in the local market. But it is not a magical solution.
Claude Jibidar: The aim of our relief operations (in the Sahel) is to ensure that people experiencing food shortages have access to food. The fact that we provide them with cash means they have the money and they can go and buy food. But that is not all. They obtain the cash after participating in an activity that is productive for them, teaches them something and through which they address their immediate problems. For instance, they work in groups to build dykes to better control water and learn irrigation techniques.
Isn’t this setting up an unsustainable parallel economy based on aid?
Julien Jacob: We are trying to prevent a crisis. It is not meant to last for eternity. It is to prevent or respond to a crisis in the hope that through the cash for work and food for work initiatives we train communities on certain techniques regarding land and water conservation that could build resilience and improve the harvest in the coming agricultural season. It is an opposite to food distribution in that it is building on the local food market – so it’s also helping economic recovery at the local level and fighting (price) distortion.
Claude Jibidar: When people who benefit from these cash initiatives go and buy food they contribute to trade in their area so that assistance goes beyond the person that eats the food. It sustains the local food economy rather than upsets it, as would be the case if we flooded the market with food from elsewhere which would be cheaper. With these schemes the small farmer is able to sell his food to the wholesaler who sells to the local who has benefitted from a cash-for-work programme. Of course, there are areas in the Sahel where harvests were completely depleted and there is need for direct food distribution and we would do that too.