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FEATURE STORY

Niger Invests in Early Childhood through Social Safety Nets

November 5, 2013

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In an effort to combat chronic malnutrition, the government of Niger, in collaboration with the World Bank and UNICEF, has established a social safety net program targeting women
  • Beneficiaries receive a cash transfer of CFAF 10,000 (approximately US$20) per month for two years
  • In addition to the cash transfers, the women and their communities benefit from accompanying measures that encourage them to invest in their children from a young age

KATAMI, November 5, 2013 – Malnutrition is a torment that Rabi, a Nigerien mother, struggles with daily. Rabi lives in the village of Katami, in the southern Niger department of Dosso, one of the poorest regions in the country. About 20 years old, Rabi raises her five children, as well as an orphaned niece, by herself. Her husband left the village five years ago in search of a better life, leaving the young woman to feed the household on her own.

In Niger, an immense Sahelian country where the fertility rate (7.6 children per woman) is among the highest in the world and where drought strikes with alarming frequency, more than one-third of children under five years of age are underweight. And even when the harvest is good, an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent of Nigeriens struggle to feed their families.

In an effort to combat this misery, Nigerien authorities decided to tackle the causes of chronic food insecurity. In 2011, with support from the World Bank, the government began to establish a system of social safety nets targeting the most vulnerable households, and women in particular, in the five poorest regions in the country: Maradi, Tahoua, Tillabery, Zinder and Dosso.  

Rabi is among 114 beneficiaries in the village of Katami alone. For almost a year she has been receiving monthly cash transfers of CFAF 10,000 (approximately US$20), which she will continue to collect for 24 consecutive months. “I use this money to buy food and clothes, but also soap and shoes for the children,” Rabi states.

“What’s new in the social safety net program is that we’re not content to just give out money to beneficiaries; this program includes measures meant to bring about behavioral changes, not only among beneficiaries, but also across the community,” notes Carlo del Ninno, a World Bank economist and task team leader. “It is about long-term investment in human capital. The program’s goal is to help the most impoverished households meet their needs, avoid having to sell their assets when crises hit, and improve the odds that the children will emerge from poverty in the future,” he adds.

Open Quotes

What’s new in the social safety net program is that we’re not content to just give out money to beneficiaries; this program includes measures meant to bring about behavioral changes, not only among beneficiaries, but also across the community Close Quotes

Carlo del Ninno
World Bank economist and task team leader

Promoting Early Childhood Development

To increase the impact of these cash transfers, the World Bank and UNICEF have joined forces to establish accompanying measures that build community awareness of the need to adopt better parenting practices and, in particular, to encourage children’s nutrition and development. In addition to collecting her small monthly stipend, Rabi will participate in 18 months of training activities (led by local NGOs and community educators).

These sessions, based partly on UNICEF’s “Essential Family Practices” modules, explain the advantages of practices such as breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of the child’s life, adding nutritious foods to the diet and sleeping under insecticide-treated mosquito nets, as well as the importance of stimulating young children through language and play. “The innovative aspect of the accompanying measures is that they aim to give parents the maximum tools necessary to support their children’s development from a young age,” explains Oumar Barry, assistant professor of psychology at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, and the creator of the technical guide for the accompanying measures component. 

Village assemblies, which are held once a month, target the entire community. Monthly group meetings and home visits are also organized for the women who take part in the program, in order to reinforce the messages. “Going into a community and asking outright that they change their behavior overnight is quite challenging and requires a lot of patience,” acknowledges Oumou Amadou Assane, regional supervisor for the accompanying measures for the Niger government’s Social Safety Net Department.

“The inclusion of such a parenting education program is an innovation that simultaneously helps strengthen the impact of cash transfers and expands the scope of early childhood development programs,” notes Patrick Premand, a World Bank economist. “The effectiveness of parenting training programs has been demonstrated in other low-income countries, but the Niger project also includes an impact evaluation that will provide scientific evidence about the extent to which the program improves children’s nutrition and development.”

Bringing About Lasting Change

Guido Cornale, the UNICEF representative in Niger, welcomes the collaboration between the World Bank, UNICEF, and the government of Niger. In his view, linking cash transfers with behavioral changes is critical to lifting the most vulnerable households out of extreme poverty. “You cannot ask people to wash their hands with soap if they don’t have the money to buy soap. You cannot hope to change social norms in the long term without also creating economic opportunities for the villagers,” explains Guido Cornale.

Thanks to this income, Rabi can even begin saving and preparing for the future. With a group of 10 other villagers, she participates in a tontine, a type of revolving saving group that is widespread throughout West Africa. Every month, she saves some of her cash transfers into a common pot. One by one, each woman will receive an interest-free loan allowing her to invest in a productive activity.

With a budget of US$70 million financed by the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s fund for the poorest countries, the program will continue until 2017: Some 80,000 households will receive these cash transfers and 200,000 households will benefit from the accompanying measures. In total, more than half a million children will be reached. 

“I see a very strong connection between the cash transfers and the accompanying measures. These provisions allow us to envision a future, perhaps by 2030 to 2040, filled with very bright young people,” says an enthusiastic Ali Mory Maidoka, the national coordinator of the Social Safety Net Department in Niger’s Office of the Prime Minister. 

Footnote:

The project is implemented by the Social Safety Net Department, Office of the Prime Minister, Republic of Niger, with technical and financial support from the World Bank. The accompanying measures are implemented in collaboration with UNICEF, whose “Essential Family Practices” modules serve as the basis for parenting education activities. Development of the technical manual for the accompanying measures benefits from the support of the Early Learning Partnership (ELP) and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). The impact evaluation of the project is supported by the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF).