Issue 53 - Article 3

How Ethiopia's Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) is responding to the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn

March 19, 2012
Matt Hobson and Laura Campbell
Women at a water hole in Borena, Ethiopia

The Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) in Ethiopia was set up in 2005 by the government as part of a strategy to address chronic food insecurity. The PSNP provides cash or food to people who have predictable food needs in a way that  enables them to improve their own livelihoods – and therefore become more resilient to the effects of shocks in the future. However, there are times when a shock results in transitory food insecurity, the scale of which is beyond the mainstream PSNP to address. This requires additional temporary support. In this event extra funding comes from the PSNP’s Contingency Budget and, when that is exhausted, the Risk Financing Mechanism (RFM). The RFM allows the PSNP to  scale up in times of crisis, and is designed to reduce the ‘typical’ timeline for humanitarian response, so that households  receive assistance before a crisis makes itself felt. As the RFM is part of the PSNP, it can only be implemented in existing PSNP districts.

Addressing transitory food insecurity in Ethiopia

One of the main problems with the humanitarian system is that responses are often delayed and can be inappropriate. Needs assessments are often conducted only once the effects of a crisis have manifested themselves. An appeal for funds then follows, and resources are mobilised and delivered, usually some months after the need has been identified and the crisis has hit. In Ethiopia, the process of early warning, assessment, appeal and response typically takes around eight  months.

The RFM is designed to dramatically reduce the typical humanitarian timeline by temporarily extending support to current PSNP clients and new clients with transitory needs. For it to function correctly, four preconditions have to be met.

  • Early warning: effective early warning systems need to be in place to indicate the need for a response as early as possible.
  • Contingency plans: plans need to be put in place so that, when a shock is indicated, key actors in the system have  already thought through how they should respond.
  • Contingency financing: resources need to be ready and available to avoid the major time delays associated with the appeal process.
  • Institutions and capacity: adequate institutional arrangements and capacity need to be in place to allow the pre-prepared plans to be implemented.

By putting in place effective early warning systems, contingency financing, contingency plans and institutional capacity ahead of a crisis, the ‘typical’ timeline for humanitarian response can be significantly reduced, to as little as two months from warning to response.

The RFM in 2011

Early indications of a drought and possible crisis began to emerge in the highlands of Ethiopia in February 2011. In most years, the PSNP provides transfers to chronically food-insecure households between February and August. In 2011,  between these months, the needs of transitory food-insecure households were met through the PSNP Contingency Budget in the usual way. However, it became increasingly clear that highland areas of the country would need support in the months preceding the November 2011 harvest, after the PSNP transfers ceased in August. Accordingly, the federal government triggered the RFM in August 2011 to address the transitory food needs of approximately 9.6 million people living in PSNP districts. Of these 9.6 million people, 6.5 million were existing PSNP clients. An additional 3.1 million people living in PSNP areas, who in a normal year do not need additional assistance, received up to three months’ support to ensure that they could meet their food needs until the harvest in November.

Table 1 shows how the humanitarian system compared to the RFM system in 2011, in terms of timeliness of assessment, appeals, financing and response.

hobson table 1The humanitarian appeal was launched in March 2011, five months after the semi-annual seasonal assessment was completed. While the March appeal resulted in some resources being available for response, as at December 2011 (nine months after the appeal was launched and some 13 months after the original assessment) 94% of the funding for the humanitarian appeal was in place. By contrast, in August 2011, when regular PSNP transfers stopped, the RFM completed a rapid verification of needs in highland areas within a month of the request for RFM resources, and financing was disbursed within two weeks of the request. From request to disbursement took six weeks. This shows that, when the preconditions are met, the RFM easily outperforms the humanitarian system in terms of verifying needs and disbursing resources for response to be delivered through government systems. While an assessment is required to determine the impact on livelihoods of the RFM, the RFM’s early and preventive response to an identified need means that it has a far higher chance of helping affected people avoid negative coping strategies and asset depletion as a result of a shock.

Lessons and future areas of priority

Only three of the RFM’s four preconditions had been met by August 2011, namely financing, planning and capacity. The fourth precondition for the RFM relates to an effective early warning system. In 2011, the decision to trigger the RFM was made only after Regional governments requested the release of RFM resources, based on their regional early warning information. According to the RFM Guidelines, early warning should be provided by the PSNP’s regular reporting, the Livelihood Early Assessment Protection (LEAP) system and the federal government’s Early Warning System (specifically the Livelihood Impact Assessment Sheets (LIAS), a predictive tool for assessing need). The LIAS is also the basis for calculating the total number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia.  At the time of writing the LEAP  system remains under development and there is a need for clarity regarding the harmonisation of the use of the LIAS in RFM and in the calculation of humanitarian requirements. So, while there was a warning that people in PSNP areas would require additional support, this warning was not provided by the ‘official’ early warning process as set out in the RFM Guidelines.

Although the early warning system was not as strong as it needed to be, the first year of RFM operations demonstrates that responses to transitory food insecurity can be improved. There are a number of reasons for cautious optimism. First, the RFM was faster than the humanitarian response mechanism in releasing and disbursing resources from donors through government systems to poor people – implying that the RFM may be an appropriate instrument outside of the current PSNP districts. Second, government systems for implementing the RFM were tried and tested during this period and will improve over time. Third, there are clear accountability mechanisms in the RFM that are absent from the emergency response facility. Finally, the RFM contains a clear framework for evaluation and impact assessments, which are unlikely to be completed with comparable rigour under the emergency system, ensuring that lessons can be learned and impact credibly assessed. Looking forward, the focus should be on finalising an RFM that is tailored to the pastoral context This may mean linking the RFM to existing government guidelines, for emergency livestock interventions for example.  and the possible use of the RFM instrument outside of PSNP districts.


The RFM has proved to be an effective instrument enabling an early and preventive intervention before a shock becomes a crisis. The release of resources through the RFM is likely to have prevented households from having to engage in destructive coping strategies during the months leading up to the November harvest.

Addressing transitory as well as chronic food insecurity is integral to a sustainable transition from relief to development in Ethiopia. A scalable safety net is a necessary (but not sufficient) part of a Disaster Risk Management strategy. As  vulnerability increases as a result of climate change, resilience will become increasingly important, and the RFM is likely to become an even more critical instrument in the response to transitory needs.

Although there are areas for improvement, the RFM has shown its responsiveness and flexibility and has successfully contributed to addressing transitory food needs in Ethiopia. If implemented as designed, the RFM is likely to become the backbone of Ethiopia’s fight against transitory food insecurity. However, this implies that the financing, plans, capacity and early warning systems for a scalable response are in place well before the impacts of a crisis can be felt. To achieve this, further investment in Ethiopia’s early warning system is required. While we cannot know the impact of the RFM response on livelihoods this year until an independent assessment is completed, the actual response (in terms of processes, systems, scale and timing) was effective.

Given the events of 2011, there is also reason to suggest that the RFM, as a stand-alone instrument, could be scaled up across Ethiopia to cover areas outside of the current PSNP. Prepositioning financing, capacity, institutions, plans and a strong early warning system across the entire country would lead to a faster, more effective response than is possible under the current system. Even without nationwide coverage, the RFM is the largest example of risk insurance in a humanitarian context in Africa, and the 2011 experience shows us that it works. A clear precedent has been set. The RFM can of course be improved – but it can also be copied. This would however require a paradigm shift in how the humanitarian community looks at slow-onset humanitarian crises.

Matt Hobson is the Coordinator of the PSNP’s Donor Coordination Team (DCT). Laura Campbell is a Programme Officer in the DCT. The DCT facilitates policy and practice agreements between donors and with the government of Ethiopia on issues relating to PSNP, food security and DRM. The DCT also manages the research agenda for the PSNP.


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