By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)
World Bank Senior Director for Social Protection, Arup Banerji, has cautioned that monies distributed to poor people from the Social Safety Net (SSN) project are not handouts but investments.
“This project is an effort and a movement that aims to invest in every person in this country with the ability to take charge of their own lives and their own destinies, to become resilient to the inevitable other shocks that may come and to free themselves and especially their children from the debilitating cycle of poverty. That is the vision of this program and strategy,” said Banerji during the formal launch of the SSN project by Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma in Magburaka, Tonkolili District, in Northern Sierra Leone on Monday 5th May 2015.
Tonkolili is one of the poorest regions of the country.
The devastating impact of Ebola in the West Africa sub-region has claimed the lives of as many as 11,000 people overall and more than 26, 000 infected; and survivors and families including widows and orphans are experiencing tremendous difficulties including loss of income and stigmatization.
The poverty situation has worsened in the three Ebola-affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone with poor people becoming even poorer to the extent they cannot meet their basic needs.
According to Banerji, international scientific evidence today has shown overwhelmingly and definitively that well designed social safety net systems are not just luxuries that rich countries should have or tempting palliatives when crisis occur. Instead, he noted, they are essential parts of the national economic development tool kit unlocking huge positive effects, not just in lowering people’s poverty but having benefits and ensuring that poor and vulnerable families make exactly the sort of investments in themselves that will allow them and their children to prosper.
Today over 130 developing countries across the world have made safety nets and social protection systems as central part of their development strategies and their budgets. In Africa, the number of countries with cash transfer programs in the beginnings of social protection systems has grown from 20 in 2010 to over 40, doubling in just four years to 2014; a growth that is unprecedented in the development history.
More and more countries are designing these programs themselves to suit their own development needs just as Sierra Leone has done with their own strategy, and funding these programs increasingly from their own budgets.
Countries across the world are investing significant parts of their budgets, between one a half percent and often 3 percent of their GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in social protection systems.
Scientific research evidence also show that families that received social safety nets benefits, small but regular and predictable, send more children to school, access more health care and invest in themselves- in their productive opportunities.
“We have evidence from these countries that if you compare identical families who are getting cash transfers and those who are not getting, regular and predictable cash transfers, they are planting more trees- including fruit trees, they have more investments in live stock and chickens, they are buying seeds and agricultural inputs and they are investing in themselves in terms of business activity. This is the power of these safety nets because it allows poor and vulnerable populations to have a basic, if you like, an insurance policy,” said Banerji, adding that if something suddenly happens in a household receiving regular cash transfers, they don’t have to take their child out of school or sell their live stock and chicken to meet the crisis.
This is because, ‘you have something that you know will come, and you will continue investing in yourself’.
“We are pleased to partner with the Government of Sierra Leone, with Unicef and other partners to launch this safe net program, more importantly we are here to support and applaud the strategy, which sets out the path and a blue print to build a system that will systematically invest in the Sierra Leonean people over time,” said Banerji.
The SSN project targets to benefit over 20, 000 households of about 125,000 extremely poor Sierra Leoneans including women and children, but the government has realized that is just a small fraction of the vulnerable population. About 150, 000 extremely poor households have been identified and 413, 000 serious poverty households.
The project involves registering people who are really below the poverty line- who can’t meet their basic needs- and giving each poor household regular cash transfer of US$15 per month (bulk in every three months). A household is defined by the National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA), which is steering the program, ‘as members of a family that sleep under the same roof and eat from the same pot’. It started with the Rapid Ebola Safety Net (RESN) program but the two programs are now implemented concurrently.
Despite rich in natural resources, Sierra Leone remains among the poorest countries in the world.
In April 17th 2015, at the Spring Summit in Washington, the World Bank Group, as one of the leading financiers and responders to the Ebola crisis, mobilised more than US$1 Billion from international donors in response to the three Ebola-affected countries’ support for international recovery from the impact of the crisis. This included from the World Bank Group (from IDA) a commitment to provide an additional US$ 650 million in support for recovery, a fund for the poorest countries. And this all in addition for the three countries to the nearly US$1 Billion which the Bank had already previously committed for the Ebola emergency response and recovery.
Sierra Leone is already benefitting US$130 million of this and with additional potential for accessing about US$250 million more.
Of course much more will be required as this is a drop in the ocean in terms of resources needed It is hoped that other donors will come forward with support at the July 10th conference in New York which will be hosted by the UN Secretary General.
But clearly the provision of money alone will not make the difference for the people of Sierra Leone, according to Banerji.
“What matters will be how these resources are used to invest in the people, the institutions and the systems that will make the recovery strong and the recovery resilient,” he said.
In this vein, Banerji underlined three key aspects:
One is the immediate and critical response lesson specifically from the Ebola epidemic, which is the need to ensure that every country has a robust health system. This means a system that is well led, well financed and well equipped to deliver access to quality essential care and preventable services even in the remotest areas, with effective disease surveillance and diagnostic capabilities, trained health work force and key investments.
“Communities must be empowered to serve as a front line for disease prevention response. And this is exactly what is happening in Sierra Leone and this is a key lesson going forward,” observed Banerji.
The second aspect is the need, as the country and as the development community, to ensure that any crisis- whether it is in health or in agriculture or the natural environment- does not become quickly a development crisis. A health crisis or natural disaster, believes Banerji, cannot derail the path to prosperity and growth that Sierra Leone is on.