A cash transfer beneficiary in Tahoua, Niger A cash transfer beneficiary in Tahoua, Niger Photo credit: Tagaza Djibo, Concern Worldwide
Cash transfers and vulnerability in Niger
by Jeff Woodke, JEMED October 2012

Cash for work and cash transfers have been used increasingly since 2005 to try to reduce chronic vulnerability in Niger. They have been used as part of humanitarian relief as well as disaster risk reduction (DRR) programmes. This article examines how one organisation, Jeunesse En Mission Entraide et Développement (JEMED), has sought to integrate cash for work, sales of food and fodder at a reduced price and long-term development activities, including land regeneration, into a single programme in Abalak, northern Niger, and the impact of this integrated approach on the resilience of pastoralists.

In addressing chronic vulnerability, traditional humanitarian relief and development approaches have been inadequate. It is vital to develop a new approach that not only alleviates the immediate effects of a food crisis, while also addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability. Such an integrated approach involves more than simply including disaster risk reduction activities in humanitarian programmes. An approach that combines humanitarian activities, risk management and long-term development is needed.

Integrating cash for work into sustainable development activities

JEMED is a national Christian NGO working with pastoralists in Abalak Department, in Niger’s Tahoua Region. Tearfund, with which JEMED has partnered for over 20 years, provides funding and technical support. JEMED began using cash for work during a food crisis in Niger’s pastoral zone in 2008/9, as part of a consortium of NGOs funded by DFID. This was one of four food crises that Niger has suffered since 2004.

In 2010, JEMED combined its DFID-funded cash for work programme with other longer-term activities designed to improve food security and economic sustainability. The activities chosen for integration were the regeneration and management of land, grain banks and animal fodder banks. In some cases these activities already existed at the beneficiary sites, as part of ongoing development work. In other cases the cash for work programme was used to start these activities at new sites.

These long-term activities were designed to build resilience to recurring drought and food crises. At sites where the long-term programmes had finished without being interrupted by drought, there was an increase in the resilience of herders. Despite back-to-back droughts during 2008 and 2009, and the severe food crisis in 2010, in which herders lost on average 70% of their livestock, people at these sites requested little or no outside assistance, and livestock losses due to drought were much lower than the average in the area. This highlights that cash for work can help protect against drought the gains people made with the development programme.

Building resilience to future droughts is a key feature of JEMED’s long-term work, and was initiated by the pastoralists themselves. From the first day of their partnership with JEMED almost 22 years ago, the pastoralists said that they were only interested in activities designed on the premise that drought had become a permanent part of the environment. They also stated that activities must take their nomadic lifestyle and culture into account. Applying this community-based approach to programme design and implementation is a key factor for success.

In Niger, development activities and disaster risk reduction activities often overlap. This is because traditional development activities like food security, livelihoods and natural resource management are essential to reducing the risk of drought. DRR and resilience need to be built into long-term development programmes; they should not be a separate set of activities. DRR, resilience and development activities must reinforce and complement each other, helping to build resilience in the long term. For example, instead of simply reconstituting depleted herds after a drought, people received loans of animals alongside the creation of permanent water sources, land and pasture regeneration and conservation, grain and fodder banks, human and animal health provision and even primary schools tailored to nomadic needs. The cash for work programme was designed to be integrated into ongoing development work, to reinforce and complement these long-term activities.

Land regeneration through cash for work

Beneficiary households earn cash by regenerating degraded pasture land through the construction of grain and fodder banks. A collaborative approach is taken as the community and the local government environmental extension service choose the exact type and location of the regeneration activity. The community and JEMED are responsible for the organisation and implementation of the work, while the extension service provides training and technical follow-up. Land regeneration was chosen as the object of cash for work for three reasons:

  1. Natural resource regeneration and management is important for long-term sustainable and resilient development in the pastoral zone. Pastoralists raise livestock as their principal economic activity, and depend on natural resources. Environmental regeneration at the local level will improve pasture and forest production. The cash for work activity also has an impact on long-term economic sustainability locally and nationally.
  2. Pastoralists in Niger have no formal land tenure in the areas where they are residents. Non-resident herders can consume all the local pasture, leaving nothing for the residents for the rest of the year. Adaptation to climate change and environmental degradation mean that, even in good rainfall years, many pastoral households in Abalak are unable to migrate seasonally, and must rely on the pastoral resources in a limited area for much of the year. Regeneration activities can give local communities some limited rights over regenerated land, providing a drought or dry-season reserve.
  3. Land regeneration is not traditionally practiced in the communities JEMED works with, and so the cash is not a disincentive to the completion of activities which would normally be done without payment. Consideration of ways in which a cash payment could undermine sustainability is important. JEMED actively encourages communities to continue land regeneration without payment, and has met with some success in this. Eventually a new work activity will have to be chosen, such as rainwater harvesting.

As part of equitable and sustainable resource management, the organisation has worked closely with local communities and their elected leaders to help them gain an official, although limited, version of land tenure, known as Priority Use Rights. These give local pastoralists the right to priority use of pasture resources in their home territory when in competition with transient herders for the same resources. The rights are secured after a process of training and demarcation of the home territory by the local government through land management committees. At sites where cash for work regeneration activities have been completed, the application of Priority Use Rights is much easier. Even this year, with a severe drought and an almost total pasture deficit, grass was available at one beneficiary site until January 2012, thanks to the combination of land regeneration and Priority Use Rights. The government could improve livestock productivity by scaling up this combination of activities through cash for work.

The cash and what to do with it

One advantage of cash for work is that it allows the integration of other resilience-building activities in the programme. The community itself develops the criteria, based on vulnerability and food insecurity, on which to select participating households. Wages range from 20,000 CFA to 30,000 CFA ($40–$60) per household.

Once the work is satisfactorily completed, herders receive the payment. Households can then use some of the cash to buy grain at a reduced price, animal fodder and other commodities. JEMED provides enough stock on site to serve each of the beneficiary households, although they are not obliged to purchase it. At the beneficiary sites, each household can buy between 100kg and 200kg of grain and 50kg–100kg of animal fodder. The amount is determined by the needs of the beneficiaries as well as the funds available to the NGO. JEMED assesses market prices weekly, and the prices are set at least 50% lower than the market rate, so that after the purchase the head of the household will still have a small amount of cash. The subsidised cereal helps maintain food security for the beneficiary household for up to one month per 100kg, depending on household size. In large-scale interventions, reduced-price sales can lower market prices generally, improving purchasing power for the larger population.

Most crises last longer than a few months. Successive cash for work actions at each beneficiary site are preferable, rather than artificially inflating the cash payment for a single cash for work episode. Often, funding availability is a primary factor in determining the scale of an intervention, and may limit the number of cash for work activities undertaken. In this case, the timing of cash for work activities becomes very important, and they should be implemented when they will have the greatest impact on the household economy.

Sales of commodities at a reduced price also increase purchasing power for the household. During a food crisis when pasture is non-existent, animal prices drop and grain prices rise. The exchange rate of sheep to 100kg of cereal is normally less than 1:1. However, in a crisis it can be 3:1 or greater. By providing another source of income, the cash allows the household to maintain its livestock capital. The fodder helps households maintain a small number of animals, helping to keep them alive and also providing some milk for women and children. This increases the ability of the household to survive the crisis and to recover once the crisis has abated. By holding the sales at the beneficiary sites, households are also able to economise on transport costs. This can be significant as the nearest market may be 60km or more away. This can amount to between $15 and $20 per round trip, depending on distance. During a crisis these transport costs alone can equal the value of two sheep.

The proceeds from these sales are put into a bank account by JEMED and, after the crisis has passed, the funds are made available to the community so that they can either create new or reinforce existing grain and animal fodder banks. Each of these structures has a community management committee that takes the money and purchases the commodities. Monitoring by communities and JEMED has confirmed that these committees manage the funds and stock effectively. They usually restock after the harvest when prices are at their lowest. Normally the community restocks the banks in bad years as well as good. However, in a severe year a drought can exceed their capacity, justifying support from an outside agency. Using cash for work minimises any dependence that might be created through a direct restocking of the bank by the NGO.

In this way, donor funds are used for both relief and development ends. The cash for work activities and food sales give households a flexible way to alleviate their immediate needs, yet the pasture regeneration and community grain and fodder banks also serve to enhance long-term food security and economic sustainability.

The right tool at the right time

Cash for work is most effective in the early stages of a slow-onset food crisis. At a certain point it is no longer realistic to expect people to work: either they are too weak and stressed or environmental conditions do not allow it. For example, during the dry season in Niger (March–June), temperatures can rise to above 40°C. In cases where the amount of cash needed exceeds the amount that can be paid through wages on a cash for work project, grain and fodder sales at reduced prices can provide an indirect additional cash transfer.

Cash for work and cash transfers can help to reduce the magnitude of a food crisis early on. They can conserve household resources and improve survival from crises and post-crisis recovery. When designed with sustainability firmly in mind, they can complement long-term development activities, protecting the gains made through those activities from shocks and allowing communities to build resilience. Cash for work and cash transfers should not be implemented as stand-alone humanitarian activities, but should be integrated into long-term development activities.

The early recognition of the food crisis this year by the government of Niger and by international organisations was positive and essential. However, the response has been inadequate and is still based on the free distribution of food or sales at a reduced price from centralised depots. The government and institutional donors should take a decentralised approach, allowing local communities to integrate cash for work or cash transfers into multi-sectoral development activities. Institutional donors should develop funding mechanisms that allow this type of approach. This should happen quickly to facilitate the post-2012 crisis recovery in Niger and the Sahel more broadly.

Jeff Woodke is Director of JEMED.