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COVID-19: Give people cash instead of maize flour and beans

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Added 17th May 2020 03:59 PM

A 2016 World Bank research also revealed that costs associated with ‘cash relief’ are significantly lower than those associated with ‘food distribution’.

COVID-19: Give people cash instead of maize flour and beans

An LDU officer carrying food for dustribution in Lubiri Ring Road zone in Katwe 1 on April 13,2020.

A 2016 World Bank research also revealed that costs associated with ‘cash relief’ are significantly lower than those associated with ‘food distribution’.

By Peter Ndawula

Pandemics have been documented to manifest in waves that could stretch to anywhere between 12 to 36 months. Vaccine research, production and supply chain rollout could take between 12 to 24 months. This means countries need to prepare for extended periods of social and economic interruption, with more people slipping into extreme poverty each day. The Government of Uganda is aware of this and has launched a drive to assist the most vulnerable with basic needs, including food rations. 

This, however, requires pre-existing infrastructure and robust population data. You would need a network of countrywide food banks or reserves set up overtime, with inbuilt quality assurance mechanisms. On the distribution side, you need to know who your people are, where they live, their social-economic status, among others. We as a country are fortunate to have a very strong Local Council (LC) system, with LC chairpersons that have been in place for long stretches of time, and know their people. We will need these LCs now, more than ever. 

The government has set up the National task force, District task forces working with Resident District Commissioners (RDCs), and most recently plans to have Constituency task forces chaired by Members of Parliament (MPs). These are all aimed at reaching the most affected households within our communities. Budgets for these task forces have food as one of the largest components. We have however already witnessed challenges around food procurement, quality, distribution and are likely to struggle with accountability for funds spent. 

Accountability for food would require, as a minimum, that you confirm procurements were carried out with due diligence and that value for money was achieved. Secondly, you would need proof of distribution of these items including stock records and confirmation of receipt by households. This can pose a logistical nightmare in times like these where you are fighting a pandemic. The currently fragmented procurement and distribution processes are likely to increase the risk of failure to account.

This brings us to our next best alternative - supporting families through monthly cash transfers. We could maintain food distribution - on a limited scale, focussed more on refugee and other concentration camps. Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) data shows that over 50% of Ugandans had mobile phones and were registered on Mobile Money (MM) platforms by mid-2019. This means a majority of households have at least one family member with a mobile phone and can receive MM. Families have different priorities, with medical care high on the list, and will know how best to utilize this monthly cash relief. 

Operationalizing this model will require active participation of our LCs, especially in compiling lists of the most vulnerable within their communities. The pandemic is likely to gravely affect families headed by the elderly, disabled, children and families with no formal income. Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development (MOGLSD) would need to provide a clear Vulnerability Index to be followed by LCs and the task forces. There will also be need for well-articulated monitoring and tracking systems at LC level, with clear reporting into national tracking databases.

Commercial banks and other industry players like Beyonic Technology and Yo-Uganda Limited have set up platforms to smoothen funds flow from banks to MM accounts. MM has been used by especially the donor community, most notably USAID, in getting program funds and allowances to participants countrywide, by a click of a button. This has been shown to work and presents a relatively cheaper option than having trucks delivering food door to door. 

A 2016 World Bank research also revealed that costs associated with ‘cash relief' are significantly lower than those associated with ‘food distribution', ‘World Bank Policy Research Paper 7584‘. 

Cash relief will allow for a clear trail of funds flow, for accountability and audit purposes post COVID-19. Remember, the Government, Development Partners and Individuals contributing to this fight are going to need accountability! 

Lastly, giving families actual cash, and allowing them a choice, ensures that economic forces of demand and supply are kept in play while transferring risks associated with quality of commodities to supply chain players. Our small neighbourhood kiosks will stay afloat, continuing to buy from whole sellers, who in turn buy from manufacturers and farmers. This will guarantee a relatively active supply chain, contributing to economic activity during this COVID-19 period, as we wait for medium and longterm stimulus packages to play out.   

The writer is a Public Finance & Management Consultant

Peter Ndawula - FCCA, CPA, MA-EPP, BCOM


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