Malindi Msoni & John Mututwa
The Minister of Finance, in his 2017 National budget address to the National Assembly, made reference to the Government’s commitment to scale-up social protection programmes, to shield the most vulnerable in society from the negative effects of the Zambia Plus economic recovery programme.
The Minister spoke of leaving no one behind as the economy transitions to recovery in 2017. He thus announced an increase in the budget allocation to the Social Cash Transfer (SCT) programme of 83 percent, from K302 million in 2016 to K552 million in 2017.
But why focus on the SCT programme? With poverty levels still adamantly high at 54.6 percent, the Government’s key priority is to identify means to reduce its effect through, for example, the provision of SCTs to extremely poor households. The primary aim of SCTs is to reduce extreme poverty and the transfer of poverty from one generation to the next.
Who is eligible to receive a SCT? Three main criteria must be fulfilled to qualify for the programme, a household should: have lived in the same catchment area for at least six months, have members who are unable to work due to chronic illnesses, disability or old age, and have a welfare level falling below a predetermined threshold. These criteria apply to both rural and urban households, although for the latter, hosting at least one disabled member of any age is a mandatory requirement to qualify.
Then, how are beneficiaries selected? Beneficiaries are identified by groups of volunteers known as Community Welfare Assistance Committees (CWACs). CWACs, with the help of local leaders, identify households that meet the residency and inability-to-work criteria. Additional information is collected to assess eligibility as per welfare criteria. Once households that meet all three criteria are identified, community members are allowed to make suggestions to remove better-off households from the list. Communities do not participate in the payment of the transfers.
The participation of community members in the recruitment of eligible households has led some experts to argue that the SCT programme has the best targeting methods among all social protection programmes in Zambia.
Selected beneficiaries are entitled to receive a monthly payment of K70 or K140 for households with persons living with disabilities, made every second month.
The SCT programme has improved considerably. The programme, which started out with only 159 poor households in Kalomo district in 2003, covered 239,000 poor households in 2016 and is expected to reach as many as half a million poor households in 2017. Moreover, the value of the grant has grown from K30 in 2003 to K70 in 2016 and is expected to increase to K90 in 2017. While this indicates an increase in nominal terms, the transfer value has in fact fallen in real terms. Using 2015 prices, the transfer value has fallen from K101 in 2003 to K77 in 2014, in real terms. This raises the question of how adequate the SCT is given the rise in the cost of living.
That notwithstanding, the argument to scale-up the SCT programme rests on the positive impacts of the programme. Impact evaluation studies have shown improved living conditions among beneficiaries. For instance, a recent UNICEF study reveals that as a result of the SCT, 1,490 beneficiaries in Serenje and Luwingu districts increased their number of meals per day, improved their housing conditions, bought livestock and child necessities, invested in productive and other social activities, and even reduced their debt.
While some beneficiaries have reportedly seen improvements in their livelihood, the often long distances beneficiaries have to cover and the lengthy time they spend to access payments still remain a concern. For example, recipients in Serenje and Luwingu spend on average one hour to walk to and from the nearest pay-point and an additional 41 minutes waiting to receive payments. Ways to reduce the distance covered by beneficiaries to reach pay-point centres should be explored. The use of mobile money services and similar innovations for example, can help reduce travel and waiting time.
That said, an important question that remains is whether the 83% nominal increase in the budgetary allocation to SCTs is sufficient to leave no one behind. The answer is probably not. While the SCT scheme has performed really well, it is not a 'catchall' solution to reducing poverty and vulnerabilities. In order to leave no one behind in 2017, the right synergies will have to be created between the SCT scheme and other social protection programmes such as the Food Security Pack. One way to ensure maximum returns from these programmes is by creating a common database for all social protection programmes to avoid the double-dipping syndrome where some beneficiaries find themselves on several programmes at the same time.
Ultimately, although the 2017 National Budget will probably leave some people behind, a sizeable proportion of the poor are likely to benefit from the scale-up of the SCT programme.