Social protection and seasonality in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe

In this article I compare the impacts of predictable seasonally-targeted safety nets in Ethiopia with annual unpredictable emergency food assistance interventions in Zimbabwe, based on cases studies of MCC supported projects. I argue that when designing food assistance projects, more predictable assistance during the hunger period provides greater opportunity to build long-term food security through the protection of household assets and labour and the promotion of greater risk-taking to enhance agricultural production. I conclude with a focus on practical measures to enhance safety net interventions.

MCC’s experience in Ethiopia provides evidence that the predictability of
seasonal safety nets enhances food security and reduces the risk of acute
crisis. Seasonally-targeted and predictable social protection interventions
aimed at addressing chronic and seasonal food shortages in the form of cash-for-work and food-for-work have been successful in boosting agricultural productivity and in scaling up conservation agriculture in severely degraded watersheds of Ethiopia. Implementation of physical and biological soil conservation activities in farms in Amhara has reduced soil erosion, thereby improving soil fertility and expanding the productive land available for farming. Crop yields have steadily increased and targete communities have restarted growing nutritious, palatable and higher-value crops such as barley, wheat, teff, field pea and haricot bean. In some of the graduated watersheds, the number of months of adequate household food provisioning has improved from six to ten.

Growing a greater variety of crops also helps decrease vulnerability to climate change by diffusing risk. Over 7000 small-scale farmers in Ethiopia’s Amhara and Sidama zones can now apply conservation agriculture (CA) techniques on their rehabilitated land, something they could not do before because of the level of erosion and land degradation. Most of the farmers in these two zones who have taken the lead in introducing CA techniques to the region have praised the seasonally targeted safety net project as the reason why they were able to adopt new farming technologies that otherwise they would have considered too risky. Most of the farmers are using the income generated from the cash-for-work resources to buy fertilizers and improved seeds. Increased fodder availability thanks to biological and soil conservation techniques is also leading to better livestock production outcomes.

These seasonally-targeted and predictable transfers in the form of cash and food have resulted in more consistent consumption at the household level. Project participants are eating more food, of different types, of better quality and more often. At the beginning of the project, 80% of the project participants were eating fewer than two meals per day and to date the same participants are consuming at least three meals per day thanks
to the seasonally-targeted and predictable transfers of food and cash. The number of food groups consumed has also increased from three to seven out of a possible twelve groups measured by the Household Diet Diversity Score index. The project is designed to ensure consumption smoothing (i.e. more predictable, stable consumption patterns) through the use of cash-for-work during the first three months of the annual hunger period (the months when food is available and accessible through the market) and food-for-work during the last three months of the hunger period (when markets have more limited food options available).

Seasonal cash- and food-for-work projects are also protecting people’s
productive and labour assets in Amhara and Sidama zones. Significant numbers of project participants are now able to avoid selling their limited harvests to pay for short-term household needs such as medicine or school fees and have also been able to avoid selling productive assets like livestock and household utensils for food. They have avoided high interest loans for food and have not had to migrate to find work during the annual hunger months (distress migration), thereby allowing more investment in
their own household livelihood activities. In addition, they also avoid low paying, exploitative and insecure casual labour as well as avoid harvesting their crops prematurely to address pressing food shortages. Cash payments from cash-for-work projects are also used for a range of productive investments, including education, livestock and savings schemes. Moreover, the predictable transfers play a key role in allowing people to feel secure enough in their income to take out productive loans which they previously found too risky.

By way of contrast, in one MCC project I examined in Zimbabwe short term and unpredictable emergency safety net interventions in the form of food-for-work meet the immediate food needs of households during peak hunger periods and create community assets such as earth dams and weirs. However, the unpredictability and late delivery of these food transfers create a tension in chronically food insecure households between meeting urgent food consumption needs and liquidating those limited food reserves in order to meet other needs for agricultural investment and education.

Year after year, rationing consumption and irreversible coping mechanisms (such as the sale of capital assets) had been reported before the emergency food-for-work projects started. Repeated exposure to seasonal stress is leading to the use of erosive coping mechanisms which in turn undermine a household’s ability to cope in the long term. Communities take on potentially disastrous debts and sell productive assets, which in turn compromises future livelihood gains, all to buy food for immediate needs. This pattern severely limits families’ abilities to bounce back, thus leading to a poverty trap. Uncertainty in the delivery of emergency assistance discourages households from making risky investments and taking out productive loans because their consumption smoothing and asset protection are not guaranteed. Not surprisingly, distress migration is common, with the majority of the able-bodied youths in the community opting to cross the border to South Africa in search of work.

While seasonally-targeted and predictable social protection interventions in the form of cash-for-work or food-for-work schemes are the best options for addressing chronic and seasonal food shortages, specific conditions should be in place for the predictable seasonal safety nets to be more effective. These conditions include:

  • Where cash-for-work is used, the size of the payments should be realistic and reviewed against inflation and the local cost of a diverse monthly food basket for the household. In Ethiopia, the size of the benefits paid is regulated by the government and in most cases the participants perceived the payments as too small to meet the food gaps.
  • Payments should be made on time. When payments are made late, households are likely to revert to harmful coping mechanisms which defeat the whole idea of a predictable safety net. Timeliness and predictability of payments from cash-for-work projects are key.
  • Participants in cash-for-work or food-for-work projects should be informed upfront of the payment amounts or of the food ration sizes. Participants should also be alerted to the duration of the project and when they will no longer be eligible to participate in the project (the project’s “graduation threshold”). When households are aware that they will receive seasonally-targeted cash or food transfers for a number of years, they are encouraged to take risks on their farms and adopt new technologies without fear of being food insecure.
  • Projects should establish clear guidelines about who is targeted for participation and what the project’s graduation thresholds will be. Such guidelines are essential for effective household selection and monitoring.
  • Very poor, labour-challenged households should be accommodated. Those who cannot contribute labour such as the sick, elderly and children should not be left out. Arrangements should be made for them to receive unconditional cash or food transfers each month.
  • Public works components of cash- or food-for-work projects should be conducted during the agriculture slack period so that these initiatives do not compete for agricultural labour aimed at household food production.
  • Community assets created though public works schemes need to be maintained on a regular basis. For this to happen, community based structures to support sustainability are vital. So, for example, in Boricha, Ethiopia, social fencing, the community shaming of those who encroach on rehabilitated land, has proven to be useful in protecting community assets.
  • Participants need continued access to the seasonal safety nets until livelihood-enhancing activities have created a sustainable livelihood.

While the food assistance schemes in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe examined above both provide immediate access to food for vulnerable households, the predictable and timely seasonal safety nets in Ethiopia are more effective in promoting long-term food security and reducing risk. Seasonal safety net projects should accordingly ensure that cash and food transfers happen in a predictable and seasonally timely manner.

Vurayayi Pugeni is an MCC humanitarian assistance coordinator, based in
Winnipeg, MB.

Learn more:

Ellis, Frank, Stephen Devereux and Philip White. Social Protection in Africa. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2009.

Devereux, Stephen. “Seasonality and Social Protection in Africa.” Future Agricultures Consortium Working Paper 011. Brighton, UK: University of Sussex, 2009. Available at