“Allah knows my future,” says Sahra Hassan, a mother of seven living in Istabud village, one hour’s drive southeast of Jigjiga, the capital of Somali Region in eastern Ethiopia. “But I hope for a better life than I’m living now.”
Sahra is one of 8 million people across the country benefiting from the Government’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), the biggest safety net in Sub-Sahara Africa helping those facing the most severe food scarcity.
In 2011, when the Horn of Africa faced an unprecedented drought, PSNP is believed to have heavily contributed to averting a famine. This year the programme is again cushioning families from drought currently affecting the Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia, the Somali Region is the hardest hit.
“We collect stones and soil and band them together to create raised banks,” says Sahra. “These banks stop the rain water from cutting gullies across our farms. If the water is not stopped, it will ruin the land where we grow food.”
This is just one of the communal activities that families involved in PSNP carry out, with such ‘public works’ taking place five days a month and in return they are given food or cash.
In Sahra’s village, they are digging trenches and creating raised strips of earth that break the speed of run-off water whenever it rains. This protects the land from erosion. Such protected areas are then fenced off to allow grass to grow, providing fodder for the livestock during dry seasons.
Protecting the most food-insecure people
Sahra is part of the programme because she has no other means of putting food on the table for her family. Somali Region is one of the most food-insecure areas of the country, primarily due to the cyclical droughts and the effects of climate change.
“When I joined the programme almost ten years ago, I had nothing. I had lost all my animals and I couldn’t feed my children,” says Sahra.
In times of dire need, families cornered by hunger often sell off whatever productive asset they have at hand, often livestock, to stave off the immediate danger. However, this practice only pushes them a step closer to complete poverty and reduces their resilience to the next shock.
PSNP aims to break this vicious cycle by preventing people from having to resort to such negative coping strategies in the first place. Regular food or cash transfers allow families affected by environmental shocks — especially droughts — to protect their assets and slowly dig themselves out of destitution.
Slowly rebuilding their livelihoods
Yusuf Hussein Abdullahi was a well-off man in his heyday. The father of 14 now considers himself one of the poorest men in the village.
“I was doing very well — I owned camels, goats and cattle, and I was also cultivating crops. That is how I managed to marry two wives,” says Yusuf. “But over the years, I lost my livestock to disease and drought, and the land became less and less productive.”
Just like Sahra, when Yusuf joined PSNP in 2010, he only had a handful of animals left.
“I only had one donkey and about ten goats,” says Yusuf. “This could not sustain my two families.”
With predictable food and cash transfers, people like Sahra and Yusuf have a chance to regain their former prosperity — or at least have enough to be able to feed themselves and their children again.
Yusuf has managed to rebuild his herd of goats to about 30, shared between the two families. He also owns five cows, that are a source of milk for the younger children.
And Sahra is much better off and very proud of her achievement.
“Today, I own a cow and I have a herd of 15 goats,” she says.
This is my ‘remittance’
The cash and food transfers are a life line to the struggling families. Mums and Dads no longer have to watch their children go hungry and constantly worry about the source of the next meal. With food on the table, they can concentrate on meeting other needs, including health and education for their children.
Sahra says she married off her daughters at the ages of 14 and 16 at the height of her desperation. Both never went to school because they were required to help eke a living for the family.
“I’ll take the younger girls to school,” she says, adding on a lighter note. “Perhaps they will fetch me some camels when they get married.”
Whenever the PSNP cash is disbursed, Sahra says she feels like one of those lucky families with kin working abroad and sending cash back home.
“We go out and buy food, clothes or shoes, depending on the needs,” she says. “I also send some money to my son who is in the university.”
On top of buying food, Yusuf is using the PSNP cash to support his children’s education as well.
“My wife knows our needs. If perhaps we’ve taken some food on credit, she keeps track and is quick to pay back once we receive the money,” says Yusuf. “We sit together and agree on what to buy.”
A firm foundation for a better future
Since 2016, WFP’s PSNP portfolio has received US$97 million in contributions and has assisted approximately two million people in Afar and Somali regions.
In 2019, across Ethiopia, PSNP is implementing about 40,000 projects and reaching chronically food-insecure families in eight regions.
These sub-projects vary from location to location but are all focused on bettering the chances of the most food insecure to survive environmental shocks.
Communal projects like birkas (water pans lined with cement) and fodder enclosures allow families to keep goats and cows close to their villages without the need to migrate in search of water.
Shared facilities constructed under PSNP, such as health clinics or classrooms, ensure that services are close, giving children access to better health, and an education that can promote a stronger future generation. Soil conservation ensures arable land is not destroyed, allowing families to produce food now and well into the future.
“I pray for better rains in the future. With water, we can grow crops or rear animals to sustain ourselves,” says Sahra.
Sahra Hassan says that her future is in Allah’s hands — which is true — but what if her small actions today can influence the hand that she’s dealt tomorrow?
PSNP activities are funded by (in alphabetical order): Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), Government of Ethiopia, European Union, Global Affairs Canada, Irish Aid, KfW, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), UK Aid, UNICEF, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Bank, and the World Food Programme.
Click here to read more about WFP’s work in Ethiopia.