|Editorial Comment: Grants best way to ensure no one starves|
|Wednesday, 08 August 2012 00:00|
Each has its inefficiencies and distortions.
Subsidies, which the colonial regimes initiated, are perhaps the most inefficient and the most distorting. One problem is that the rich are subsidised to a far greater extent than the poor, simply because they can afford more of the subsidised products. The second is that some families do not have even enough money to buy the minimum amount of the subsidised goods, so are not helped at all.
And finally, there is always someone who finds the angle, either cornering the market when subsidised goods are scarce, as they are likely to be, buying them up cheap and selling them dear or introducing huge and expensive distortions into an economy that eventually drives prices up for everyone.
We have all heard of farmers in the 1980s who sold their maize at the market price and bought subsidised maize meal to feed their pigs. We all know about Nigeria’s petrol shortages caused by dealers selling subsidised petrol across porous borders.
Markets have their own problems, but at least they reward honesty and make a lot of cheating impossible.
Food hand-outs for the weak and elderly were a much better idea. At least those who needed food, and who could not afford to buy it, did not starve. But the system was inflexible.
Perhaps a family needed a different mix of food than was in the parcel; perhaps they wanted a different type of food. And again there were other distortions. Big producers and truckers made money but local businesses and shop-keepers lost out badly and may even have had to join the hand-out families.
Food for work was hurriedly modified to give modest cash payments to those on public works in food short areas. This worked a lot better than handing out bags of meal and since the wages were so low only the desperate wanted to join; the element of corruption was almost eliminated.
This is why the new system of giving the most desperately poor families tiny grants of US$10 to US$25 a month, is so much better.
This is roughly what the food hand-outs to the same families used to cost, so there is no extra expense to either donors or the Government. But the family, and these families are either grandparents bringing up grandchildren or orphaned teenagers bringing up their younger siblings, can at least make some decisions of what basic needs have to be met each day.
It treats people as responsible people, so preserves at least a shred of dignity, and it does not distort the local community or local economy.
As safety nets go it is exceptionally basic; it is not an attempt to equalise incomes or even to provide a decent standard of living.
It is there to stop people from starving and even then assumes that these same people grow their own vegetables and probably keep chickens, do odd jobs, and receive some extra help from friends, families and neighbours. But it is a start and it appears to be affordable.
Just as important, the Ministry of Labour and Social Services ties the same families into other basic-help schemes, such as Beam (Basic Education Assistance Module) for school fees. There is no double listing or double testing of means; administrative costs are kept low.
Some worry that there could be corruption, that some could cheat and get help when there are others who are more deserving.
Welfare cheats are a nuisance in all countries, but from Zimbabwe’s experiences with free food and Beam we seem to have hit on a system, involving community nominations, that keeps this at exceptionally low levels.
Most communities know who needs help the most.
We have all heard of those unsung heroes who find a bit of extra food for orphans down the road, who give odd jobs to the old widower bringing up his grandchildren, who buy their tomatoes from the old lady trying to support a child.
We can rely on these people to expose cheats and ensure that the most deserving receive the tiny help now available. You would have to be a very brave cheat to face the wrath of your average parish Mothers Union or its equivalent.
The problem is likely to be different, of finding enough money to help all who qualify.
Beam has shown that more children need help than there is money to help them and those who list the names are sometimes almost in tears as they have to refuse families who are not totally destitute, but who should be helped.
So far the system, in the 10 pilot districts, is working. We now need to expand it as fast as we can find the money.
It is not perfect, but it is important, it does work, it does not cost much, and for these destitute families without an able-bodied adult breadwinners, it does save lives.