Cash distribution in Maradi, Niger Cash distribution in Maradi, Niger Photo credit: Oxfam/GB/Fatoumata Diabate
The impact of safety nets on the resilience of vulnerable households in Niger
by Ousmane Niang, Véronique Mistycki and Soukeynatou Fall October 2012

Niger is a landlocked country in the Sahelian zone of West Africa. Ranked 186 out of 187 countries on the UN Development Programme (UNDP)’s Human Development Index, Niger faces extreme poverty and vulnerability caused by climatic factors and recurrent food crises. These crises have triggered large humanitarian responses involving food aid, nutrition interventions and cash transfers. These interventions, while important, have not addressed underlying issues of chronic vulnerability, which might be better tackled through social safety nets and social protection programming. This article examines the piloting of social safety nets in Niger, using cash transfers combined with the promotion of key family practices (KFP), and discusses emerging lessons on their effect on food insecurity and vulnerability.

Chronic poverty related to recurrent food crises

Estimated at 2.3% in 2011, the rate of economic growth in Niger is insufficient to meet the basic needs of the country’s 16 million people. High levels of poverty affect nearly three out of every five Nigeriens. This is compounded by dwindling agricultural incomes, lack of income diversification, the impact of the global economic crisis and rising prices of food and other essential goods.

Recurrent food crises in 2001, 2005, 2008 and 2010 have undermined people’s resilience. Nearly 50% of households were food-insecure during the crisis of 2010, and over a third will be in the same situation in 2012. These households have neither sufficient income nor enough food stocks to meet their needs and resort to survival strategies which lock them into a trap of poverty and chronic vulnerability. Survival strategies include decreasing the quantity, quality and frequency of meals, consuming foods only eaten in times of crisis (such as boiled leaves), the sale of personal property and breeding stock and the decapitalisation of productive assets and important basic resources. A study conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) in 2010+Chocs et vulnérabilité au Niger [Shock and Vulnerability in Niger], World Food Programme, 2010. revealed that most assistance used in response to food insecurity serves to protect households’ immediate access to the means of subsistence, but fails to ensure the recovery of households most affected by recurrent shocks. According to the results of a survey conducted by the National Institute for Statistics in 2012, the main threats facing households are declining agricultural production (80% of respondents), rising food prices (54%) and crop infestation (56%).+Rapport de l’enquête Pratiques familiales essentielles et filets sociaux [Key family practices and social safety nets survey report], Institut national de la statistique, 2012.

The high prevalence of severe and acute malnutrition, over 12% since 2009 and peaking at 15% in 2010 is one result of this situation. Chronic malnutrition has risen steadily since 2009 and currently affects over half of all children. Acute malnutrition is directly or indirectly responsible for 50%–60% of deaths of children under the age of five. Despite significant investment in basic social services and much progress in reducing child mortality, considerable efforts are still required in the areas of health, nutrition, hygiene and food security.

An innovative social protection initiative

To address food insecurity, the government has adopted a national social protection policy targeting vulnerable groups. The policy emphasises implementation of the 2010 Action Plan for Social Safety Nets, which allows for the provision of a permanent system of safety nets as a complement to shorter-term food aid interventions. The two-year programme, supported by the World Bank in partnership with UNICEF, targets 70,000 households. Of these, 40,000 will benefit from monthly cash transfers of 10,000 CFA, as well as sensitisation on key family practices (KFP) (the specific practices are discussed below). The other 30,000 will participate in cash-for-work schemes over a period of two years, but will not be exposed to KFP sensitisation. The cash-for-work component will provide 60 days of work to approximately 15,000 people annually, for a total of 30,000 people during the lifetime of the project.

The pilot phase of the cash transfer component of the programme began in early 2010 and covers 2,500 households. The KFP promotion accompanying the cash transfer is meant to encourage sustainable positive changes in family and community practices to help improve living conditions in the medium and long term, and address the structural causes of malnutrition and food insecurity. KFP sensitisation, which is not restricted to cash transfer beneficiaries, is carried out at the village level. It involves several steps, including village assembly, group discussions and house-to-house visits.

The logic of combining KFP and cash transfers is clear. Cash raises household income, providing scope to increase food consumption (and widen the choice of foods consumed), and improve household resilience by enabling beneficiaries to avoid negative coping strategies and increase savings. At the same time, the promotion of KFP helps to create the mid- and long-term conditions necessary to prevent malnutrition and foster development, in particular by helping to improve health and development in early childhood.

niang-fig-1UNICEF, in collaboration with the government and NGOs, has been testing the approach used to promote behavioural change and adoption of KFP in 176 villages in Maradi and Zinder since 2008. The approach is based on promoting practices with a proven impact on improving child survival and nutrition. Eight practices were selected (see Figure 1): exclusive breastfeeding for children under six months, quality complementary feeding after six months, hand-washing, addressing diarrhea and dehydration, sleeping under mosquito nets, care-seeking behaviour, using preventative health services and leaving more time between births. The approach also recognises that community participation is the cornerstone of any intervention to promote behaviour change; it is informed by socio-anthropological analysis of knowledge, attitudes and practices of KFP in Niger.

An effective combination

Evidence suggests that the promotion of KFP as an accompanying measure in the safety net programme has been very effective. As part of an evaluation of the programme, a survey was conducted in 2011 by the National Institute of Statistics of Niger in the Tahoua and Tillabery regions, where the pilot programme was carried out together with KFP promotion. To assess progress, the survey results were compared with the results of an evaluation of a KFP programme in the Maradi and Zinder regions, which has been ongoing since 2008. This revealed that, after just ten months, the combination of the social safety net programme and KFP promotion had achieved results comparable to those observed after four years in an area where only a KFP programme was implemented. This highlights the benefits of combining safety nets and the promotion of KFPs.

The behavioural changes observed within communities in Tahoua and Tillabery participating in the social safety nets and KFP programme and those observed in villages in Maradi and Zinder participating in the KFP-only programme are summarised in Table 1.+The figures in Table 1 are taken from the 2011 National Institute of Statistics survey.

niang-table-1Strengthening the prevention and management of food insecurity and malnutrition in children

The results of the survey support the hypothesis that the distribution of monthly cash transfers contributes to improving households’ food security. Data analysis shows that cash transfers increase the capacity of households affected by food insecurity to meet their food needs and those of their children. The vast majority of households (95%) claim to have used the cash transfers mainly for the acquisition of food (83% of the cash went on food). This resulted in better-quality food for households benefiting from the safety net programme, as shown by an increase in the Food Consumption Score.+The Food Consumption Score is the weighted sum of the frequency of consumption of particular foods over seven days. An increase in this score shows that households are consuming nutritive foods more frequently. In addition, 85% of respondents believe that the programme contributed to improved food security, especially for children. In Tahoua, the percentage of malnourished children was 12.6% in households in the safety net programme, compared to 14.3% in other households – though these differences cannot be attributed to the safety net programme because of the many variables that impact upon malnutrition.

Strengthening the resilience of households vulnerable to food insecurity

The results also suggest the potential for cash transfers to contribute towards developing household resilience. Cash transfers were used for building savings in almost three-quarters of beneficiary households (72%), and for productive investments. More than half of these households (52%) invested in productive assets such as livestock, 46% made investments to diversify their economic activities and 38% invested in agricultural inputs. Furthermore, 75% indicated that the increase in the income of beneficiary households had contributed to the diversification of economic activities.

It also appears that the social safety net programme has contributed to strengthening social cohesion by giving the poor in the community an opportunity to restore their social capital within both their families and the wider community. For example, beneficiary households had a preference for saving money through ‘tontines’ (savings and loan groups).

Changing attitudes and social practices

According to the KFP qualitative survey, the combination of cash transfers and KFP has led to some changes in social and cultural practices, such as more babies being delivered in health centres and an increase in exclusive breastfeeding. The KFP activities also encouraged the participation of groups traditionally marginalised within their communities, especially women and young people, by including them in community volunteer selection, village meetings and other elements of community dialogue. Finally, social acceptance of KFP was observed. In some villages, additional group activities were initiated by the community itself, such as ‘hygiene and cleanliness’ days, organising transport for people needing medical attention and collective construction work. In some places, community volunteers assist the staff of the health centre by holding communication sessions for patients.

Consolidating gains and increasing impact

As chronic vulnerability in Niger is closely linked to food crises, social safety net programming could lessen the impact of the shocks and stresses that Nigeriens regularly face. The preliminary results of this pilot suggest that combining KFP with social safety nets may be a good sustainable strategy for strengthening the capacity of vulnerable communities. In 2012, the Social Safety Net Programme will be scaled up in 1,000 villages for approximately 210,000 people. This raises hopes for fighting chronic poverty, promoting social equity and encouraging positive behaviours and practices in communities and families. Furthermore, the lessons learned from the pilot social safety net project will provide information regarding the use of KFP as part of social protection interventions.

Ousmane Niang is Chief of Social Policy, UNICEF Niger. Véronique Mistycki is Reports Officer and Soukeynatou Fall is Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, UNICEF Niger.