From Life Saving to Livelihood Improvement: The Trial of PSNP in Rural Ethiopia Featured

Regular food shortages can hinder the life of rural farmers, continuing the cycle of poverty and making some already destitute situations even direr. The Ethiopian government sought to remedy this problem through establishing the Productivity Safety Net Program. The Program aims to improve food security for poor households in rural farming areas. So far, the Program has had considerable success.  EBR’s Berihun Mekonnen spoke with some of the Program’s participants as well as some critics who think the Program could be doing more. 

In 2003, Ethiopia faced an unprecedented food shortage because of a recurrent drought in rainfall deficient areas throughout the country. More than 12 million people were at the mercy of the emergency food assistance they received from humanitarian organizations. 

The government had appealed to donors and the international community for emergency aid. Several humanitarian aid organizations and other bilateral and multilateral groups answered that call and saved millions of lives.

Emergency food aid was critical in saving lives throughout the country’s crises, despite the fact that they didn’t always arrive on time. Still, these aid programs weren’t able to bring long-lasting changes to the lives of these people. Droughts come back and harvests fail year after year, a vicious cycle that continues intermittently.

After the last calamity, however, the Ethiopian government thought pragmatically about how to best remedy the situation. In close collaboration with development partners and donors, it has prepared a document entitled ‘The New Coalition for Food Security’. 

In 2005, this food security program was launched with three components: the Productivity Safety Net Program (PSNP), The Household Asset Building Program (HABP) and the Resettlement Program. Later, in 2009, the Community Competition Investment Program (CCI) was added. 

 Of all these components, the PSNP, the largest social protection program in sub-Saharan Africa, has been praised by the international community for delivering the core objectives of the envisioned plan: food security at the household level.

Households selected to participate in the Program are supposed to work on community development projects, called public works, in exchange for food, cash or a combination of both. The combination of cash and food transfers is based on season and need, with food given to households in the lean season between June and August. Vulnerable households receive six months of assistance annually to protect them from acute food insecurity.

Household members able to work are engaged in different community projects, such as soil and water conservation, rural road construction and maintenance, and the construction of health posts and schools, among others. Those who can’t work because of old age or disability can get similar support for free, which is called direct support. More than 7.8 million people all over the country have participated so far and it has been hailed for achieving some of its objectives.

“Since it was launched, the Program has made notable contributions to reduce household vulnerability and food insecurity, improve resilience to shocks and promote sustainable community development in rural areas of Ethiopia,” according to a World Bank statement after approving an additional USD600 million (ETB12 billion) financing for the fourth phase of the Program a few weeks ago. 

In all, more than ten development partners support the Program. The World Bank also gives low interest rate long-term loans for the implementation of the Program. 

Kahsu Asmelash, 46, is a father of four and has lived much of his life in despair and hopelessness in the Ofla Woreda of Southern Tigray Zone. He has worked hard on other people’s farm for years, as his parents died in the 1984 drought while he was still relatively young. 

When he got married 20 years ago, he thought his life would change for the better. But with frequent droughts and crop failures, his hopes soon evaporated. He sold his oxen and other animals to feed his children and long-time sick wife whenever his crops failed and the produce from his farm couldn’t last for the whole year. He started working on other people’s farms in exchange for using their oxen.  

Six years ago he joined the PSNP ‘safety net’ program. For the next three years he worked in this Program during the non-harvest seasons and earned a living. “My life has completely changed after joining the Program,” says Khasu. “My family doesn’t worry about food throughout the year and I have even started owning assets.”

By saving money from selling some of the grain he harvested, he has now bought an ox and a few sheep. He ploughs his land by partnering with a neighbor who has an extra ox. His children take care of the sheep in shifts, since they’re in school. “I will buy another ox soon by selling the lambs and some grain. My hope has risen again,” he told EBR.

But it’s not just Khasu who has benefitted from this Program; evidence suggests he’s one of many beneficiaries of the Program. “Evaluation research has proven that food security at the national level has increased from 8.4 months in 2006 to 10.1 months in 2012,” says Berihu Kahsay, a senior expert for the Safety Net and House hold Asset Building Case Team Planning and Pastoral Development at the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). 

Even those who have reservations regarding the long-lasting effects of the program praise its current positive impact on the rural poor.

“Even though the Program, despite its long implementation period, didn’t bring about any earth-shattering breakthroughs, it has helped a lot, especially among those in absolute poverty,” says Workneh Nigatu (PhD), an agricultural economist at Addis Ababa University.

Besides accessing food for those in need, the community projects undertaken by the Program have improved the availability of infrastructure in rural areas.  

According to the Food Security Coordination Directorate at the MoA, access to infrastructure such as rural roads, health post and schools has increased. More than 39,000km of new rural roads have been built, maintenance for 83,000km have been given, and 50 health posts and schools have been built through these programs, according to data from the Directorate. 

The impact of PSNP in contributing to environmental protection through soil and water conservation is also evident. Because of the work done in tree planting, soil and water conservation and other environmental protection, carbon emission have been sequestrated. In a study done on only two basins, 1.45 million tons of carbon were sequestrated. 

While food aid did save lives, it did not contribute to development activities that could address underlying causes of people going hungry, according to Berihu. As the major source of the problem is the degradation of the soil and environment, the achievements in these areas are remarkable, he says. “We have achieved noteworthy success. We have made places that lack water have water and barren land to be covered by trees, bushes and grass,” he told EBR.

“Since its launch nearly a decade ago, the Productive Safety Net Program has made unparalleled contributions not only to food security and Ethiopia’s progress in meeting many of the MDG goals, but to reversing land degradation,” says Guang Z. Chen, World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia.

One of the most important effects of the PSNP, according to government officials, is that it has shown that it is possible to change the environment and someone’s life if they work hard and the necessary support is provided. “It has brought a behavioral change of a ‘yes I can’ mentality in general,” says Berihu.

Despite its successes, some people are still critical of the Program. Many of the participants aren’t able to break the cycle of poverty, says Dr. Workneh. They also worry about the sustainability of a program that’s funded heavily from loans by foreign organizations. 

There is also are fierce criticism about the selection of Program participants. “In many instances, people who are relatively better off are included in the programs,” says Dr. Workneh.

A 37 year-old farmer, who spoke to EBR on the condition of anonymity, has similar complaints. He thinks that even though some of the most deserving people are in the Program, he feels that some kebele officials sometimes include people they favor. He has been in the PSNP for the past two years and he knows several people who have been benefiting from the Program while others poorer than them weren’t included. 

Officials at the Food Security Coordination, however, don’t accept the criticism. “The Program has a joint monitoring and evaluation committee,” says Berihu. “The committee evaluates the Program in a joint review mission every six months and checks at [the Prgoram at the] grassroots level.  Whenever there are grievances, an appeal committee is set at the kebele level as a safeguard for irregularities,” he says. “But working with close to 8 million people is not an easy task and there may be some discrepancies, but for sure they are insignificant,” he concludes.

For a household to graduate from the PSNP, it needs to have enough food for a year and be able to withstand a moderate shock by itself for three months. The goal of the Program is to have households move from subsistence living to having assets that can be invested in the future. 

The question, however, still remains as to whether or not the Program should transform the lives of people. It has been almost a decade since the Program has been launched and the fourth phase, PSNP IV, has started to be implemented. “The Program should enable people to make a breakthrough,” Dr Workneh advises. “It can’t be a permanent solution; the Program should be evaluated as a whole and should make a mechanism to change the implementation process to bring about transformational changes.”

Berihun Mekonnen

EBR Staff Writter


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