Lockdown cash relief: Govt promise just pie in the sky

IN life there are times when parents — going through a difficult time — cannot say no to their children in need. Rather, they opt to appease, and the conventional statement “I will see what I can do” is often used as an excuse.

Admire Masuku/Ruvimbo Muchenje

Deep down though — knowing their shallow pockets — parents often buy whatever they can afford to please the children. It boils down to an act of responsibility and appeasement.

The same could be said of the cash relief promised by government to individuals whose livelihoods were affected by the Covid-19 lockdown measures.

The relief of ZW$180 (around US$4 at parallel market rates) is barely anything at all and, by the time it is disbursed, it would have been eroded by inflation, considering that Zimbabwe is operating in a hyperinflationary environment.

Labour and Social Welfare minister Paul Mavhima could not have put it better, when asked by journalists last week whether the money was enough.

“The money is not meant to replace household incomes. It is supplementary,” Mavhima said, adding that in coming up with the figure, government had to look at its “resource envelope”.

Mavhima’s statement underscores the government’s precarious position while highlighting the fact that the millions who hope for salvation from it are waiting for a pie in the sky.

Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development director, Janet Zhou, says the grant amounts to “tokenism” and is not based on respect for human rights and certainly “not about giving people a decent livelihood”.

Likewise, economist Vince Museve believes that though necessary, the intervention is “meaningless to make a significant difference”.

Another economist, John Manyanya says the allocation by government “is irresponsible, limits economic freedom and does not have material impact on the lives of people. The government is failing to come up with a proper protection mechanism”.

The National Consumers Rights Association (Nacora) spokesperson, Effie Ncube, says the allowance is way below a family’s monthly needs.

“Our research has indicated that a family would need about US$200 a month,” he said. If that is converted by the parallel market rate, it translates to more than ZW$8 000. It (the money allocated by government) will probably buy just two bags of subsidised mealie-meal,” Ncube said.

Although the amount is meagre, Samuel Wadzai, Vendors Initiative for Socio-Economic Transformation (Viset) director believes the relief grant should have been disbursed in the early days of the lockdown.

“We don’t know why government is taking too long to implement this very important intervention. We are halfway through the extended lockdown period yet people are still to receive the promised grants,” Wadzai said.

The organisation that represents 68 000 members in all of the country’s cities and towns says none of its members have benefitted from the Covid-19 cash disbursements.

The informal sector is the biggest employer in Zimbabwe. Most workers in the sector live from hand to mouth, meaning they last had income when the lockdown was announced on March 30, 2020.

These people — should the lockdown continue into the foreseeable future — are likely to find themselves food-insecure and unemployed. Worse still, people in this sector have irregular incomes and no culture of saving.

With their normal lives having been short-circuited by the lockdown, informal traders are likely to lead a destitute life.

The 2020 Global Report on Food Crisis describes Zimbabwe’s food insecurity situation as “alarming” and expected to “worsen”. It adds that about 2,4 million people are listed as in a crisis, 1,1 million in emergency situations and 2,7 million are stressed, while the country is going through one of its worst food insecurity crises in a decade.

The government has set aside ZW$200 million a month for the cash transfer programme and beneficiaries are still being registered.
Mavhima says “payments will commence once Treasury authority is granted”.

His comments contradict an earlier statement by Finance minister Mthuli Ncube who said, in the early days of the lockdown — the payments will “commence immediately”.

Zimbabwe’s annual inflation is estimated above 670% and basic goods are not only beyond the reach of many but are vanishing from the market. According to a survey conducted by the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, the food basket for the month of February was ZW$2 840 for basic needs, ZW$204, 36 for detergents and ZW$1 644, 00 for utilities making a total of ZW$4 656,47.

But since then prices have skyrocketed making the relief grant a pittance. Figures from Zimstat, the country’s statistical agency, show that the total consumption poverty line (TCPL) for a family of five was ZW$6 420,87 for March 2020 up from ZW$5 292,63 in February representing a 21,3% increase. The food poverty line (FPL) — the minimum value of food items that must be consumed by an individual in a month — is pegged at ZW$473.

The 2019 Zimstat Labour Force and Child Labour Survey report, shows that Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate stands at 16%. According to the survey, Zimbabwe’s labour force has 3 463 512. Of these 2 987 064 are employed while about 566 449 are unemployed.

Some of these people, despite being classified as employed by Zimstats have no alternative sources of income since most industries have closed, and the majority who were absorbed by the informal sector are not working as their sector is listed as non-essential.

Sensing danger, last week, the government announced that it had reached an agreement with industry for a price moratorium. If it works it will be the first! But while the nation takes a walk of faith, many are in a dicey situation.

Zimbabwe’s social protection problems are anecdotal. Since 1994, the National Social Security Authority (Nssa) — the body charged with providing social security for the government has been administering two schemes — the Pensions and Accident Prevention and Workers’ Compensation Scheme.

Both schemes are employment-based and do not cater for domestic workers and those in the informal sector who are the mainstay of the economy. There are, however, measures being taken to expand the schemes bracket.

Apart from the cash disbursements being given to those who have been affected by Covid-19, the government of Zimbabwe administers many other public assistance programmes, including the old age scheme, inputs scheme, Basic Education and Assistance Module (Beam), food relief programme, disability scheme and others targeting various groups. These are financed by government and some are donor funded. The major problem with the schemes is that they are means-based and usually politicised.

The grants for most vulnerable groups are in the range of ZW$180 per month, a paltry allocation in times of pandemics such as Covid-19.

National co-ordinator for the Zimbabwe Social Protection Platform, Emmanuel Dzenga says: “Covid-19 requires people to take particular protective action in terms of their hygiene. Hygiene materials are expensive. The government needs to review the grant which is too little for those with disabilities and the elderly given that they usually have other chronic illnesses.”

As a result, there are growing calls for the government to consider reviewing its social protection policies to be all-embracing in line with global best practices.

Dzenga adds that the prevailing social schemes are prone to errors of inclusion and exclusion.

“There is a need for a universal social protection plan as is the case in other countries. The needs-based scheme used by government is prone to corruption. People who should not benefit are benefitting while deserving ones are left out of the social protection nets,” Dzenga said.

His comments are supported by Manyanya who says that “there is no transparency in the way the grants are administered. Government needs to respect transparency in the implementation of social protection schemes and desist from a culture of economic opaqueness”.

Journalism lecturer Admire Mare adds that: “Whereas other countries used an objective needs assessment criterion, Zimbabwe claims to have used an ‘opaque’ algorithm which focused on people’s bank and mobile phone payments when some of the poor and vulnerable do not have accounts and mobile phones.”

His concerns are shared by Museve who says that government does “not know what each and every Zimbabwean is doing making it difficult to determine the benefits that are due. Creating a database now will mean taking another three weeks or so including verification of names” before people receive their allowances.
The Covid-19 pandemic is instructive and a wake-up call for the country to invest in social protection schemes.

“Coronavirus is teaching us to choose leaders with economic vision not the current situation where spending is biased towards the military and security sectors instead of health,” Museve says. He adds that the country is paying for “sins of ineptitude”.

Zhou agrees adding there is a need for government to “look at social policies and ensure that they respond to our context and provide decent work, productive work and security even for those in the informal sector which is the mainstay of our economy”.

Her views are supported by Dzenga who says “there is a need by government to help those in the informal sector to organise around social protection” so as to reduce their vulnerability.

Catholic University of Zimbabwe social sciences lecturer Believe Mubonderi says government needs to “cut unnecessary spending, invest in essential services such as health and disaster preparedness to avert similar problems in the future”.

Despite the difference in the size of the economies, the cash payment given by the Zimbabwean government is too little when compared to what its neighbours are offering their citizens as lockdown stimulus.

Among other benefits Namibians are receiving R750 (US$40) whilst South Africans are getting R350 (about US$19).

Reeling from economic decline, limited foreign currency, high fiscal deficit, and a plummeting currency, Zimbabwe which is seeking US$220 million to fight the effects of Covid-19 will rely heavily on external financing to pull through.As it does so, many of its vulnerable populations risk dying from starvation.