WHEN the world’s leaders gather for the UN sustainable development summit in New York this month, they will have a staunch if silent supporter for some of their principles in a grandmother, some 13 000km away in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
Mapheello Palaoane (75) may have never heard of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which are due to be ratified at the summit and which will define the global development agenda for the next 15 years.
But her life in the southern African nation has been transformed by a cash grants programme that speaks directly to the ambitious global drive to eradicate poverty, and also delivers on UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s commitment to restore the dignity of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Outside her stone-and-mud, one-room house in Mafotholeng-Hamoeketsi, about 40km north-east of the capital, Maseru, Palaoane says the grant she receives complements the income she gets from selling tomatoes and green peppers and from a government pension. Her monthly income is 750 maloti ($53) a month, including 200 maloti from child grants.
“It helps a lot,” said Palaoane, whose own children are all dead. Her four grandchildren who live with her, who range in age between seven and 17, are all from her youngest son. Community workers say her children died of Aids, but Palaoane did not want to talk about the causes of their deaths.
The provision of cash grants feeds into a trillion-dollar debate around how to fund the all-encompassing SDG agenda in a world that is grappling with economic crises, austerity and the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
A response to this question was sketched out at the development finance conference in Addis Ababa in July, when government officials agreed an “action agenda” that listed the different resources that will be drawn on to fund the SDGs – from taxes in developing countries to private sector flows.
In 2009, the European Union teamed up with Lesotho’s government to introduce the Child Grants Programme (CGP), which aimed to help orphans in a country that has an adult HIV prevalence rate of around 23% of the population. The UN children’s agency, Unicef, provides technical support.
Lesotho is home to around 2 million people and is ranked 162nd on the UN’s human development index. Its economy is heavily reliant on a preferential trade deal with the US that supports its textile industry, and about 27% of people are unemployed.
The country is still a long way from meeting the millennium development goals, the predecessors of the SDGs, which expire this year. In a 2013 report, the UN’s Development Programme (UNDP) said the biggest challenge for Lesotho was reducing poverty, hunger and income inequality.
However, the report also said that the country has been progressing well towards achieving universal access to education, which has been a priority for the government. Higher school enrolment has been an unexpected side effect of the cash transfer programme.
A 2013 study by Oxford Policy Management found that nearly all the families who received grants spent the money on their children, with positive results across several indicators: a rise in the percentage of boys enrolling in school instead of taking up the traditional role of cattle herders; a 15% reduction in morbidity among children under the age of five ; and a 37% increase in birth registrations.
Unexpectedly, the grants also helped to reduce the annual period of severe food shortages by 1.7 months as recipients bought food, and improved families’ creditworthiness, according to the study.
From an initial 1,250 households, the CGP grew to reach 25,000 households, and 65,000 children, by the end of 2014.
“The CGP not only improved the welfare of children in some areas, it also brought additional positive impacts, which were not originally expected,” said Mariam Homayoun, EU governance head in Lesotho. “Families are really able to be more resilient to shocks. It’s improving the quality of life of families, and their dignity.”
For Nthabiseng Moshate, the grants meant that she could put food on the table for her five-year-old daughter, her sister’s daughter and two siblings left after her mother died of Aids.
“The grants make a big difference,’’ said Moshate, 23. “With the money, I have been able to send my sister’s daughter to school and feed the children here.”
Moshate, who dropped out of school when she became pregnant at 17, would like to resume her studies and become a teacher. But for now, she works as a maid and ploughs fields.
When the initial EU funding came to an end in 2012, Lesotho took over the programme, which to date covers 43 of the country’s 67 community councils. National coverage is expected by 2021, and at 0.5% of GDP and 1% of total expenditures, the programme remains affordable, according to Ousmane Niang, Unicef’s chief of social policy in Lesotho.
“The biggest bonus for us has been the community dynamics. We found, for instance, that for each maloti invested at the community level, there is a return of 2.3%,” he said, citing a study by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (pdf).
The government would like to increase the amount of the grants – on average 500 maloti ($37) each quarter for two children – but can’t afford to.
The minister of social development, Molahlehi Letlotlo, said the government was aware of the limitations of the grant amount, but wanted to concentrate on building livelihood support.
“What we are really focusing on is how to provide [people] with livelihood projects and wean them from these handouts. We are working with our development partners to try to address the root cause of the vulnerabilities,” he said.
Unicef and the EU have commissioned Belgium’s Maastricht University to study the impact of the programme on the overall economy, with the results expected at the end of October. – Guardian.