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FEATURE STORYOctober 31, 2022

Social Safety Nets Relieve Poverty—and Hunger. Madagascar Needs More of Them


  • In Madagascar, a 75% drop in rainfall in 2016 meant 95% of the crops were lost and more than one million people made food insecure.
  • Rainfall gaps in 2018, 2019, and 2020—coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic—mean more than two million people are likely to be acutely food insecure by March 2023.
  • About 430,000 people in 37 communes have benefited since 2016 from a World Bank-funded cash transfer program and another 320,000 people since 2021 from a crisis component for the 20 most affected communes.

We’re in December 2021: The Menarandra River is dry, bearing witness to the drought that has been ravaging the South of Madagascar for years. This river, on the southwestern tip of the island, crosses the three regions composing the Grand Sud or Great South—Atsimo Andrefana, Androy, and Anosy—and used to provide water for the cattle and the crops of surrounding villages. But it has been dried-up for months.

The South of Madagascar is used to periods of drought that usually begin in October and end in April. But, for the past few decades, this period has become longer and harder. “The climate has changed,” notes Elongosoa, chief of the village of Antaly Andrefana in Ampanihy commune, with nostalgia. Today, at 52-years-old, Elongosoa remembers that, when he was a child, the rain, without being abundant, was not as scarce.

I remember that every year we had rain. But now, sometimes it doesn't rain for a long time. The land dries up, there are no crops, and we go hungry every day. Ten years ago, when it still rained, we could fill our house with corn during the harvest. We can't do that anymore because there is no harvest.
Antaly Andrefana in Ampanihy commune

Photo by Mamy Nirina Razafindrakoto

Average rainfall in southern Madagascar has fallen and, as a result, water resources too. Late, erratic rainfall is a major driver of food insecurity in this arid region of the country: In 2016, rainfall dropped by 75% compared to the average of the last 20 years. As a result, 95% of the crops were lost and more than one million people were food insecure. The rainfall deficits observed in 2018, 2019, and 2020—coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic—have once again pushed the South into a severe food crisis. And the situation could deteriorate right through until March 2023, when more than two million people are likely to be acutely food insecure, according to the preliminary results of an Integrated Food Security Phase Classification survey.

Photo by Mamy Nirina Razafindrakoto

Cash transfers keep people fed

The World Bank has been intervening in 37 drought-affected communes through the Fiavota program, which combines cash transfers, measures to promote human capital, nutrition services, and stimulus funds, since 2016. About 430,000 people have benefited from it. Fiavota, which means “recovery” in the local dialect, was designed to be a shock-adaptive, flexible program. It is adjusted in the event of a crisis, so that it can respond quickly. Thus, since 2018, on top of regular cash transfers, the Bank has activated a crisis component to give beneficiary households extra help, while extending support to other individuals whose situation has also grown precarious.

Another program, the Toseke Vonje Aigne (“Life-saving support” in the southern dialect) was activated in 2021—due to the severity of the drought—to support 320,000 people in the 20 communes most affected by food insecurity. Tendriraza is among the beneficiaries: The 50-year-old grandmother has 10 children, seven of whom are still in her care. “Without this financial aid, we would have nothing to eat except fangitsy (roots). We raise crops, but the harvest is very bad because there is not enough water to grow them. With the money I receive, I will be able to buy some rice, cassava, and corn. My children will be happy.”

Reaching only the poorest of the poor—so far

The social protection system is nascent in Madagascar and only covers 6% of the extremely poor. First initiated here in 2015, public spending on social safety nets is still very low: 0.3% of GDP, compared to an average of 1.2% in Sub-Saharan Africa. The programs are mostly financed by partners, with the government’s contribution limited to 16% in 2021. Yet, the social safety nets, which expanded to southern Madagascar in 2016, have saved lives and restored the livelihoods of many households hit by drought and food crisis. “The success of these programs has largely depended on a good targeting system, which is carried out with the Ministry of Population, Social Protection, and Promotion of Women, and the Fonds d'Intervention pour le Développement, which is the implementing agency,” says Julia Rachel Ravelosoa, the Bank’s Senior Social Protection Economist in Madagascar.

Measures, including women's empowerment, financial inclusion, and technical training, have been put in place to support cash transfers and keep them going. A 2018 World Bank study of 695 active social safety net programs, implemented in 48 African countries, showed social safety nets can reduce poverty, build human capital, and strengthen the resilience of vulnerable households by increasing their productive assets. The same study found that if social safety nets were scaled up in parts of Ethiopia, cash transfers of $50 per household per month could reduce poverty by 40%.

Faced with multiple shocks, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest, Madagascar would benefit from expanding its social protection programs to target more people. Allocating a larger domestic budget for the country’s social protection sector is crucial to sustain these social safety net programs.