Archive for March, 2008

Addressing child poverty in South Africa

31 March, 2008

There is growing interest in the potential role of social transfers in tackling poverty and vulnerability in developing countries. Social transfers are tax-financed transfers in cash of kind paid to households in poverty. Enhancing the purchasing power of those in poverty to help them reach a basic living standard is hardly a novel approach to poverty reduction in developed countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, some policy makers have reservations on whether this approach could work. In many countries in the region, poverty incidence is high, fiscal resources are very limited, and delivery capacity is threadbare. Several pilot social transfer programmes in Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, and Ethiopia are producing much needed knowledge on how these restrictions can be lifted, and on the effectiveness of social transfers.

Francie Lund has written a book on the policy debates and processes leading to the introduction of the Child Support Grant in 1998 (Changing Social Policy. The Child Support Grant in South Africa, Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, 2008, http://www.hsrcpress.za). The Grant now reaches 8 million children in poor households in South Africa. As Chair of the group tasked with producing a review and report for the Government of South Africa which led to the Grant (the 1995 Lund Committee for Child and Family Support), a leading social policy academic, and a ‘welfare activist’ (her words), no one could claim to be better placed to write this book. The book is written with the immediacy of a main protagonist, but with the critical detachment of a researcher, a rare feat. For anyone interested in how we are to address child poverty, in South Africa and elsewhere, this is a ‘must read’. The book will also be of interest and benefit to those concerned with policy processes in developing countries.

South Africa has relied on social transfers as the main response to poverty since the 1920’s when an old age grant was introduced for poor whites. Over time, grants reached other groups, and the end of apartheid in 1994 led to the elimination in racial discrimination in access to the grants. The Lund Committee was set up to consider what support the new administration should give children in poverty. Its conclusion was that a social transfer paid to the caregiver, but which ‘followed the child’ was the most effective strategy. The extension of the rights of children which the transfer represents will, in the years to come, be acknowledged as a milestone.

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You’ve Got to Serve Turkeys to The Poor Too

10 March, 2008

Celebs-in-philanthropy is the latest thing (see this NYT Sunday Magazine piece, featuring Natalie Portman). One disgruntled PR guy sums it up on Gawker: “You can’t just get $20 million a picture, you’ve got to serve turkeys to the poor too.” Hollywood is one tough scene.

Last month a different kind of celebrity died. No movie star but a friend to India’s lepers and harijans: Baba Amte. Born into a wealthy landowning family in Maharashtra, Baba Amte’s life changed when he stumbled across a leper dying in the gutter.

A moving tribute in The Economist describes his reaction thus: “He was outraged at the fear he felt: fear of touching, as if he shared the common belief that lepers were paying for their sins and would infect anybody who came close. Where there was fear, he told himself, there was no love; and when an action was not done in love, it had no value. Deliberately, he went back to the gutter to feed the leper and to learn his name, Tulshiram. He then carried him home to care for him until he died, and began—once he had had training in Calcutta—to work in leper clinics all around the town”.

Baba Amte hated the word charity (go to YouTube here). True he fed the poor, and got them back on their feet. But above all he wanted to give them the dignity of work. And that is what he did with the thousands who passed through his ashrams He would have hated being called a celebrity. But we should celebrate a life well-lived.

Nobody Dies of Hunger in Uttar Pradesh — It’s Official

6 March, 2008

“There is absolutely no case of hunger deaths anywhere in the state”. At least that’s what one of the top officials of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh claims in a BBC report here.

Jatai, a resident of Ghoorpatti village, thinks otherwise. How does she know? Well, she’s lost five members of her family over the last 18 months — to hunger. But then, she’s not a wise state official. Just a mother trying to make ends meet while coping with her grief.

The state government has clearly stuck its collective head in the sand. “It is strange how the party which is in power denies there have been any starvation deaths, but as soon as they are in opposition, they start shouting about hunger deaths,” comments one human rights activist. It seems that India’s chronically poor are only worth noticing around election time.

What to do? Sort out the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for a start — too few poor people know their rights or receive any kind of help. Back in 2006, Jean Drèze in The Hindu commented: “There has been plenty of drum-beating but relatively little by way of effective action…. Sometimes the situation reminds me of a notice I saw once in a shop window, advertising a second-hand television. It said, “Sound only.””

So where’s the picture? Under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA 2005) any adult willing to do casual labour at the minimum wage is entitled to employment on local public works within 15 days (limited to 100 days per household per year). The Right to Food Campaign tracks progress (and read the ODI briefing paper by Disa Sjoblom and John Farrington here). Not enough funds are reaching the poor. And the scheme has also seen corruption — at least, that’s what we hear. Let us know if you think different.

Still, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of pessimism. And at least some of the criticism of NREGA is malign and by people who don’t give a damn for the poor. We need to ignore the spiteful and focus on the legitimate and constructive investigations — for, as Jean Drèze emphasizes in a January 2008 piece in The Hindu: “The extension of the NREGA to the whole country, just three months from now, is one of the biggest organisational challenges any government has ever faced. It is also an unprecedented opportunity to build the foundations of a social security system in rural India, revive village economies, promote social equity, and empower rural labourers. As things stand, however, this bold initiative looks like a political stunt, shorn of the far-reaching preparations that are required to make it a success”.

India can, and should, do better for Jatai.