Beyond the Euphoria of a Social Safety Net


There is certain euphoria, as expected, about the newly launched National Social Safety Net Programme in Sierra Leone. The idea of introducing a social safety net for thousands, although millions of Sierra Leoneans are in dire need of one, is arguably aimed at ameliorating deep rooted poverty among highly indigent Sierra Leoneans.

But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details! The scheme will target some 13,000 “extremely poor households” comprising 78,000 beneficiaries in four – Bombali, Kono, Moyamba and Western Rural – out of 14 geopolitical districts in the country. How the four districts were chosen is only a matter of speculation as methinks there are highly vulnerable and indigent folks across the country.

The scheme is expected to facilitate cash transfers of Le65,000 (approximately US$12) per month, albeit in quarterly transfers to households. A typical household in rural Sierra Leone has at least eight members. It is expected that the paltry sum will take care of their health, nutrition and hygiene needs over 30 days. If this ‘philanthropic gesture’ does not bother on the ridiculous, it is undoubtedly insensitive to the aggregate needs of an average household in the country, not least in a period of high inflation.

For the records, a social safety net is overdue in a country where more than two-thirds of the population remains part of what Professor Paul Collier refers to as the “Bottom Billion” in his book titled same. The paradox of being a potentially rich country, yet having to wallow in abject poverty is the reality in Sierra Leone. Regrettably, this has been the case from pre-war era to post-war period and the present circumstances of the worst Ebola outbreak in the world, which has only made matters worse. It is no brainer, therefore, to posit that extreme poverty and economic hardship will be with us even in the post-Ebola economic transformation, not least with the introduction of a social safety net.

According to Wikipedia, social safety nets, or “socioeconomic safety nets”, are non-contributory transfer programmes seeking to prevent the poor or those vulnerable to shocks and poverty from falling below a certain poverty level.

Going by the above definition, I am sure the intention of government, the World Bank and Unicef when designing the scheme, was to “prevent the poor” from further sliding into an “(un)certain poverty level”. Yet the fact is that the scheme, though laudable in conceptualization, will not guarantee that income support will take large polygamous households anywhere beyond eating a “descent” meal for at most a week!

The World Bank says the scheme is practiced in 25 African states and describes it as a “critical instrument for reducing extreme poverty and increasing shared prosperity”. That viewpoint by the Breton Woods institution is particularly ambitious as one need not be a rocket scientist to determine how many poor African (Sierra Leonean) beneficiaries of the scheme will actually save and invest remittances as low as US$13 per month. The sad reality is that the money will be used on food, which will not be enough to provide for the dietary and hygiene needs of teeming households.

Another reality which has not dawn on the World Bank and government is that the programme is not sustainable in that in the case of Sierra Leone, it is designed to last for two years. Besides, it is instructive to point out that 80 percent of social safety net programmes in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali and Burkina Faso are bankrolled by donors, according to the World Bank. So there is uncertainty as to how long very poor beneficiaries will continue to receive the payments as any donor fatigue could mean doom for the scheme.

But even if the scheme is extended beyond that transitory period of two years in Sierra Leone, the fact remains that the beneficiaries will only get out of poverty when and if they are provided with more money, say at least US$50 per month and good incentives – soft loans, entrepreneurial skills, training etc – and enjoy basic amenities like water, electricity, good schools, hospitals, then they will enjoy the dividends of real development and prosperity.

By their own admission, the World Bank says: “In most African countries reviewed, safety nets tend to be fragmented and too small to effectively protect the poorest”. While I am not in any way suggesting that the new safety net in Sierra Leone is “fragmented”, I would make bold to say it is “too small to effectively protect the poor”. The sum of Le65,000 is just not enough for a typical household in Sierra Leone and recipients could not be said to be beneficiaries of “shared prosperity” for receiving such.

Thus, the hallowed words of Zambian economist, Dr. Dambisa Moyo, that overreliance on aid has trapped developing nations in a vicious circle of aid dependency, corruption, market distortion, and further poverty, leaving them with nothing but the “need” will be appropriate.

Dr. Moyo’s controversial yet highly respected view contends that for over fifty years, more than $1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet, that assistance has not only failed to improve the lives of Africans, but left the continent and its people worse-off!

The reason is simple: such aids render very little aide to so-called beneficiaries because their effect and efficacy is ephemeral, and most times accord more (political) dividend to those who implement the programmes than the people they are supposed to get out of that “bottom billion”.

Source : Concord Times