The Government of Kenya recently launched a cash transfer program that will give 10,000 of the poorest people living in Nairobi’s Mombasa slum 2,000 shillings – roughly $22 – a month for eight months. As a long-time advocate for cash transfers, especially in Kenya, we at Concern Worldwide celebrated the news, largely because we know from our own experience that it works.
Even though $22 may seem small in our context, you have to remember that for the poorest, having this amount every month means, for the first time in their lives, they are receiving predictable and reliable income. For the first time, they are able to plan. We know that by giving people the opportunity to solve their own problems and make decisions about how to best fulfill their needs, families’ educations, health and nutrition standards are all raised.
Take Margaret Atieno from Kisumu, a city on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya, who, for the first time in her life, was able to plan because she had a reliable source of income. “When Concern came and said I qualified for the cash transfer each month, I was delighted,” she said. “But at the same time I just sat down and thought ‘I need to do things differently – what can I do with this money that will improve our lives?’ So I decided to keep aside some of the 1,500 shillings ($18) I received each month and gradually I was able to open this butchery.”
This is not the first time that the Government of Kenya has implemented cash transfers. What makes this particular program, called the ‘Urban Food Subsidy Program,’ unique is its scale in targeting the poorest of the poor, many of whom live on less than $1 a day. They will now have $22 a month that will help them put food on the table, send their children to school, access health care services and just as Margaret was able to do, improve their quality of life.
“I now earn 800 schillings ($10) per day,” said Margaret. “It’s such a big increase from where we were a year ago. My kids are happy as I’ve bought them school bags, they have better clothes and they are being fed. My next goal is to reach the point where I can buy and slaughter a full cow and expand my business even more.”
It is cases like Margaret that illustrate that cash transfers are not hand-outs that enable dependency or encourage people not to work. To view them as such would be to ignore the larger context of what life is like for Kenya’s poorest.
Many move to the city from the countryside in the hope of finding better work, a better life and better opportunities for their children. However, with unemployment said to be 40 percent and higher in some urban areas, they often have to settle for casual part time work like cleaning, washing clothes or laboring on nearby building sites. These jobs typically pay $1-$1.50 per day, making the most basic necessities largely out of reach. As a result, most can only afford only one meal a day and increases in food prices – like we saw last year during the drought crisis – can push the poorest onto the brink of crisis.
Hunger is an everyday reality in Nairobi’s slums: most people live on the edge, spending 40 to 60 percent of their average $1.50 a day household income on food. When the worst drought in 60 years, combined with dramatic spikes in food prices, sparked a catastrophic food crisis across the Horn of Africa, Nairobi’s urban poor faced a life-threatening emergency. With prices for basic staples like maize up by 200 percent in some Nairobi slums, food became an unaffordable luxury. During this time, the nutrition centers that Concern supports in the slums saw a 62 percent increase in admissions for treatment of severely malnourished children.
In response, Concern launched an emergency program that gave 20,000 of the most vulnerable people cash transfers each month through their mobile phones. For women like Alice Duta, the monthly cash injection was a lifeline – because food prices got so high, she was forced to resort to prostitution, a job that only earned 50 shillings (55 cents) a night on average, just to feed her children.
With the rains expected to be late and below-average once again this year, there are warnings that crops could once again fail, driving up food prices. If the worst-case scenario – a food crisis – does unfold once again in the Horn of Africa, the poorest, who have barely recovered from last year’s hunger emergency, will be the hardest hit. For that reason, the government’s cash transfer program could not be timelier.
This is not to say that cash transfers will instantly solve all the problems that families face. The causes of and solutions to poverty in urban areas and complex, but we do know that cash transfers can go a long way in ensuring that people who are already teetering on the edge do not fall further into poverty. In some cases, like Margaret’s, the small monthly allowances will allow them to do something much larger – break the cycle of extreme poverty.
What the government’s cash transfer program represents is a deliberate and targeted move to lift more of its citizens out of poverty. Because of this program, 10,000 people will have an opportunity to get past living day-by-day and have a safety net to catch them if food prices increase as they did last year. The government is also planning to roll out the program to all urban areas in Kenya over the coming years, an ambitious initiative that could very well put become a model for reducing the 53 million people living below the poverty line in East Africa, all of whom should have the opportunity to build better lives for themselves and their children.