Give us a choice, not only food

04/03/2013 – Regina Nakaalei proudly displays receipts showing that a few days ago, she bought 25 kilos of maize, four tins of beans and some sugar from a trader in Lodwar town. The 56 year-old mother of five will not buy food from a shop that does not issue receipts.

She is meticulous with records, and so is she with her money.

Regina is one of 14,000 people selected to receive assistance in the form of cash instead of in-kind food. She received 5,000 shillings (45 euros), a delayed two-month payment, instead of her usual food ration of cereals, pulses, vegetable oil, and salt.

The European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) is piloting the use of cash in the place of food in northern Kenya with its partner, the World Food Programme (WFP).

Just like in food distribution, the community comes together and identifies the most needy people among them. Those that have little or no income are selected to receive food assistance. Unexpectedly, for a pre-selected sample, the assistance came in the form of cash.

Regina says the difference is like day and night. “I gained back respect from my community. With cash, I can buy different varieties of food; I bought school uniforms for my children, and I have started a small business of selling tobacco,” she says.

Regina is confident that if the cash transfers continue, she will expand her small business and climb out of food insecurity and eventually out of poverty.

Margaret Kadogo is another woman benefiting from the cash trial. She settled in Bura Wayo village near Lodwar in 2008 after fleeing the post-election violence. She and her husband worked at a flower farm in the Naivasha town, Rift Valley, but had to flee the conflict.

With the 8,900 shillings (81 euros) that she received, Margaret has bought food, books, school uniforms, and also paid rent for her one-roomed house. “It is much better than receiving food,” she says, “I feel more dignified”.

Critics of cash programming argue that the money gets wasted. Isabelle D’Haudt, the head of Kenya’s operations at ECHO observes that the percentage of money that goes to undesirable use is insignificant.

“The people know their priorities and are wise enough to spend cash sensibly. They are responsible human beings,” she says.

The World Food Programme is receiving positive feedback from the families participating in this three-month trial. “Most families have expressed immense liberties. They say cash gives them the dignity that aid beneficiaries often lack,” says David Kamau, the Head of WFP’s office in Lodwar.

This trial is being rolled out through mobile money transfer services. Each family receives a mobile phone chip (SIM card) and for every five beneficiaries, one mobile phone is provided.

“Cash in lieu of food is a private process which reduces the incidences of beneficiaries sharing aid without killing community solidarity mechanisms. It is one further step towards ensuring appropriate social protection to poor families,” says Isabelle.

Indeed this approach to food assistance lends credence to the establishment of state-led Hunger and Safety Networks as a strong way of tackling food insecurity.

The trial will greatly inform aid work in the Horn of Africa where food security remains unstable for close to 5 million people.

By Martin Karimi, Regional Information Assistant in Nairobi, Kenya