ADDIS ABABA, 13 July (IRIN) - Ethiopia has ordered an emergency cash payment to vulnerable families to offset delays in the flagship safety nets scheme, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday.
The safety nets programme, launched in January, is the cornerstone of the famine prevention strategy in Ethiopia, a country where even during good harvests, some five million people face serious hunger.
"The Federal Food Security Coordination Bureau has directed the woredas [districts] to make a lump sum immediate payment to safety net beneficiaries, equivalent to at least three months' entitlement, regardless of whether work for this period has been undertaken or not," OCHA said in its weekly report.
"This emergency measure is in response to the delays in the transfers of cash to beneficiaries, mostly due to the limited experience and capacity of local authorities with cash handling in relief-cum-recovery activities," it noted.
The scheme mainly relies on the provision of cash rather than food, a strategy the government and donors hope will help kick-start local economies and create demand.
OCHA said many people under the scheme now preferred food to cash because of limited cereals in the market or increases in prices, and noted that families received six Ethiopian Birr ($0.70 cents) for a day's work under the programme, but earned higher in private sector work.
The Famine Early Warning System commented: "Even now, some have still not received transfers, due to logistical and programmatic constraints. These households are the most food insecure in Ethiopia, relying every year on food aid to cover a significant portion of their food needs."
The move by federal authorities followed concerns expressed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called for "argent action" in June to tackle the hold-up in support reaching those in need.
Although the scheme was due to start in January it did not officially get underway until February; families did not start receiving aid until April or May. In anticipation of safety nets support, emergency aid to some communities was stopped in October 2004, according to USAID reports.
Funded to the tune of around $200 million a year by foreign donors, the safety nets programme is one of the largest single aid efforts in Ethiopia; almost half the country's 520 woredas have been included in the scheme.
The programme is designed to sit alongside Ethiopia's emergency aid schemes for people facing starvation in the country after poor rains and failed harvests this year. Many see the scheme as a break from the annual aid appeal and say safety nets allow families to plan their futures because they would have regular support.
According to government figures, some 9.2 million people need food aid this year, 3.8 million under an emergency plan and 5.4 million as part of the safety nets scheme.
However, malnutrition levels were still rising, according to nutritional studies carried out by international nongovernmental organisations.
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