My time working on cash transfers for the poorest families in Malawi

A government accountant makes a cash transfer to Paulino Gideon, a beneficiary of the Social Cash Transfer Programme, in Malawi’s Mchinji District
© UNICEF Malawi/2016/Amos Gumulira

By Maren Platzmann, UNICEF Malawi

Working in Malawi has been thrilling since the beginning. I am German, although I grew up in Belgium, close to Aachen. I studied Political Science and began my career with a small NGO based in Cologne. Before coming to Malawi, I spent a lot of time in conflict zones, such as South Sudan, DR Congo and Ukraine. In all of these countries, I worked as an advisor for humanitarian cash transfer programmes.

The idea of ‘humanitarian cash transfers’ is that instead of handing out so-called in-kind assistance, as in food or blankets, we provide cash to affected families. People generally know best what they need, and with cash transfers they can spend the money on what they deem to be their most urgent needs — be it food, shelter, medicine or school supplies.

There need to be goods and services and the conditions on the ground must allow for such an approach. But given everything is in place, cash transfers should be among the first options of aid agencies. They support the local economy, give the greatest choice and dignity for beneficiaries, and let affected people take responsibility for their own recovery.

After working in conflict settings, Malawi proved to be a very different experience. The country does not suffer from fighting. Even protests and civil unrest are rare. The main humanitarian crisis facing Malawi is food shortages caused by floods and droughts.

As an emergency social protection specialist, coming to a country where there is an opportunity to link humanitarian action with regular social protection schemes was exciting. Here, I had a chance to help make different assistance schemes for the most vulnerable people joined up and effective.

Failodi, Kachingwe, Nomisa and Kondwani, aged 7 to 18, with their school books at their home at Mbachundu. Their family is receiving the social cash transfer.
© UNICEF Malawi/2016/Amos Gumulira

Daniel’s story

An example of the kind of family who stands to benefit from this approach is Daniel Kagwanji’s household. He and his wife sleep in a makeshift, grass shelter in Kabulika Village, Dedza — just a one hour drive from the capital city. His children sleep in a small house that he built some years ago. They have to constantly chase goats away from the family’s single crop of maize.

“The whole family depends on me to do the farming,” Daniel told my colleague Doreen on a recent visit. “We have land but we didn’t harvest much as we lack the tools and manpower to till the land. The drought that hit our area made things even worse.”

Luckily, Daniel’s family was enrolled in the Social Cash Transfer Programme, partly funded by German Development Bank KfW, which gave him new opportunities. “We used some of the money to buy food and school supplies for our children,” he explained. “We used the rest to join a cooperative which hires a tractor to till the land for all the farmers.”

Kefasi and Filesi Jackson peel Irish potatoes to make chips at their home in Mbachundu. This is a livelihood activity funded with the cash transfer money.
© UNICEF Malawi/2016/Amos Gumulira

Mtukula Pakhomo

UNICEF is supporting the Government of Malawi to design and implement the Social Cash Transfer Programme, also called ‘Mtukula Pakhomo’ in Chichewa, the most widely spoken language. It currently reaches the poorest 10 percent of families, targeting those with no capacity to work due to disability or old age.

For most beneficiaries, this means receiving a small monthly allowance of around 7,000 kwacha (€9 Euro) per month. The amount varies, depending on the number of family members and school-aged children. However, it is not always enough to cater for the family’s basic needs, especially during the ‘lean season’ between harvests.

I came to Lilongwe to help join up the existing schemes. Last week, we joined representatives from three government ministries, four NGOs, the German development agency GIZ and the World Food Programme (WFP) for a review mission to four different districts. Our aim was to better understand how families receiving the regular cash grants had been supported with additional food support over the last season.

In Malawi, once the geographical areas affected by poor harvests are identified, the selection of actual beneficiary households is primarily done by the communities themselves. We wanted to look at what guidance was needed to ensure that the people put forward by the communities and traditional leaders (village chiefs) were indeed those most in need.

We also needed to reconcile different views of targeting. On the one side, international standards rightly outline that humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need, giving priority to the most urgent cases. On the other side, communities themselves sometimes think that a family who already receives government assistance — even though it is too small to actually cater for their food needs — should not be eligible for additional support. Finally, there are concerns that longer term efforts to reduce poverty could be compromised by these differing perspectives.

Paul crosses a river to conduct focus group discussions in Mzimba (left). Lisnet, Paul, Sanama and Zika report back on the key informant interviews (right).
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Sanama Maganga and Maren Platzmann

Mission to Mzimba

I joined the team going to Mzimba district, in the north of Malawi. We left early in the morning for ten days, so we had to bring our own blankets, power banks and solid shoes. Some areas were very remote, sometimes only reachable by small boats and cut-off from electricity and phone networks.

After four hours’ drive, I arrived with four colleagues in Mzimba: Lisnet and Paul (shown here crossing a river here to reach one of the focus group discussions) from the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, and Sanama and Zika from NGOs.

Mzimba town is a crowded place at the best of times, but on the day we arrived there was a council meeting happening, where district officials and traditional chiefs came together. We found a place to sleep and were able to get hold of the district commissioner. He agreed to help set up interviews with local officials and people receiving cash and food assistance the next day.

We wanted to learn from the people directly implementing both schemes and hear from the affected communities. What did the people think of the targeting process? Was it perceived as fair? Was the information provided enough and did it go through the right channels? For those families receiving a basic cash grant, were they also granted humanitarian food aid when needed? How did the families cope with food shortages?

For one of the interviews, I was lucky enough to meet Jere Mkosi, the paramount chief of Mzimba, the largest district in Malawi. The team was nervous as traditional chiefs remain very powerful in Malawi.

Lisnet wrapped a Chitenje (traditional garment) around me before approaching the chief’s headquarters. She explained to me that chairs are not allowed in his office, as people have to be lower than the chief, and told me not to shake his hand unless he offered it. Despite all the protocol, the chief proved to be very helpful and explained his view on the targeting process of beneficiaries.

Working on the cash transfers in Malawi has been a pleasure and a privilege for me, and I will be sad when the time comes for me to pack my bags and move on. I hope that in my time here, we made a step forward towards more joined up assistance for the most vulnerable families, giving parents like Daniel Kagwanji the chance to stand on their own two feet.

Maren (centre) meeting local farmers in North Kivu, DR Congo, to assess a livelihood recovery programme for conflict affected communities
© UNICEF DR Congo/2013/Daniel Ruiz

Maren Platzmann is an Emergency Social Protection Specialist at UNICEF Malawi

Like what you read? Give UNICEF Malawi a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.