By Rebecca Phwitiko, UNICEF Malawi
Mwandida Kazembe has one job: ensuring her four children have enough to eat. It’s not an easy task. The family has struggled since her husband’s death seven years ago. Farming is Mwandida’s only source of food; she grows maize on a small garden plot.
In a good year, she harvests five bags of maize, enough to feed her family for about five months. However, there haven’t been enough good years lately so she’s had to make do with just two or three bags each year. “The rain is unpredictable, it comes late or too little,” says Mwandida.
Support for the deprived
In a country where half of the population lives below the poverty line, Malawi’s need for humanitarian assistance is immense.
As many as three million people (25% of the population) are categorized as ultra-poor (IHS 3). They struggle to find food, shelter, healthcare and education. Women and children are particularly vulnerable.
Mwandida lives in Balaka, a flood and drought prone district in southern Malawi. Soon after her husband died, she started receiving a small amount of money every month to help her and her children survive.
“At the time, it was obvious that we were struggling. Some women from the village came to ask me questions about our situation, what food we had and if we had any assets,” recalls Mwandida.
This monthly lifeline is the Government of Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Programme (SCTP), supported by the EU, the German Government, the World Bank, Irish Aid and UNICEF. Under the SCTP, Mwandida and many others identified as the poorest receive a small amount to help them make ends meet.
On average, a family receives MK 7,000 (about $10) per month. The monthly allowance varies between MK 2,600 and MK 5,600, depending on household size, in addition to bonuses received for each child enrolled in primary school and secondary school.
An extra burden for the poor
The months just before the harvest are the hardest for Mwandida and thousands of poor families across many districts in the country. By then they have run out of any stored food and food prices are at their highest in the markets.
Some 15 out of the country’s 28 districts are classified as disaster-prone. Floods and drought in these districts, which include Balaka, hit poor families like Mwandida’s particularly hard.
To respond to the situation, Malawi’s humanitarian food response has increased considerably over the past few years, reaching an exceptional peak of 6.7 million people in need of support between July 2016 and March 2017.
A UNICEF supported study found that SCTP beneficiaries like Mwandida are often left out of humanitarian assistance provided because their communities feel that they are already better off just by being SCTP beneficiaries. This misconception hurts the poorest who are most exposed to shocks such as floods and drought.
Killing two birds with one stone
Government of Malawi and its partners are now working on strengthening the national social protection system so that it does not only support more poor and vulnerable individuals and families in need, but can also scale up humanitarian response to emergencies if and when needed.
With funding from UK Aid and Irish Aid, UNICEF supported the Government of Malawi in a trial providing a humanitarian top-up to social cash transfer beneficiaries, living in drought-affected areas in Balaka who are already classified as extremely poor and labour-constrained.
Tamandani Ntepa, a social welfare officer in Balaka, says from December 2017 until March 2018, cash transfer beneficiaries have been receiving additional money to help them deal with the added hardships during the lean months.
“A market survey was done to find out how much maize, beans and cooking oil cost and the top up amount was based on those costs, to enable families to cover 65% of their monthly food needs and SCTP beneficiaries received the equivalent in cash,” explains Tamandani.
“Recurrent and predictable food crisis during the lean season and how they affect the poorest families is a huge part of why UNICEF is working with various partners to support Government of Malawi to deliver humanitarian assistance through existing social protection programmes,” says UNICEF Chief of Social Policy Edward Archibald.
“Using established government-led programmes to respond to emergencies rather than setting up parallel distribution systems year-in, year-out can support more rapid, cost-efficient, and effective assistance. UNICEF together with partners will continue its support to Government of Malawi in bringing shock-responsive social protection systems forward” he adds.