Tackling food insecurity with satellites and cash: Five lessons from Niger

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Women fetching water in the village of Chagnassou, Tahoua, Niger Women fetching water in the village of Chagnassou, Tahoua, Niger

Cash transfer programs in West Africa play an increasingly important role in providing relief to households thrown into food insecurity by droughts and other climate shocks.  In Niger, where more than 80% of people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, recurrent severe droughts can force households to reduce meals, sell assets, or take their children out of school. Against this background, the Government of Niger started implementing a new drought response cash transfer pilot program in 2021, the first of its kind in the region. The pilot uses the satellite-based Water Requirement Satisfaction Index to detect droughts early. Rapid cash support to affected households is triggered when the index value falls 10% below its long-term median at the end of the agricultural season. This enables the response to occur three to five months earlier than traditional humanitarian aid programs. 

The trigger was first activated in November 2021, and monthly emergency transfer payments have been provided to 15,400 drought-affected households in Niger since March 2022. Transfers are paid out via existing cash payment infrastructure established across the country for the national safety net, Wadata Talaka. Households receive 15,000 FCFA (approximately $24) per month over a period of 12 months.

What have we learned during this first year of implementation of the pilot? 


1) Get timing and accuracy right: Continue refining the trigger

The pilot was designed with rapid support in mind. The earlier households receive emergency assistance, the more likely they are to avoid resorting to negative coping mechanisms such as reducing food consumption. 

The need for fast action is why the government chose to use a satellite index trigger. Satellite data is monitored immediately after the rainy season at the end of October for signs of localized drought. Immediately afterwards the targeting of vulnerable, shock-affected households can begin and thus enable the provision of emergency cash transfers early in the following year. 

Now, potential refinements of this trigger are being evaluated. First, the 2021-22 experience showed that the trigger could have been measured a month earlier because the rainy season had already ended by the end of September. Analytical work is underway to evaluate whether the index could be observed earlier during the season in future years. Various options are also being considered to improve the technical accuracy of the trigger to predict the occurrence of drought. This includes, for example, considering the use of different satellite indexes for different regions, filtering out crop lands, and enhancing accuracy validation methods.


2) Avoid delays: Activities for a rapid response program should be arranged in advance

After the response is activated, a swift roll-out of the trigger requires a clear plan which must be agreed on in advance, as well as adequate staffing for all implementation processes. 

This was underlined by Niger’s experience in the first year of the program. Arrangements for targeting and the enrollment of beneficiaries were done ad hoc, but they could have been done in advance. For example, in Kenya, drought response beneficiaries of the Hunger Safety Net Program are identified before the shock occurs. 

Similarly, arrangements for providing emergency payments should be made in advance. This might require reliance on existing providers or negotiations of providers’ contracts upfront. Despite fast procurement processing, concluding these contracts took close to two months in Niger in 2021-22. 


3) Integrate: Coordinating existing government shock response systems

Early drought response efforts must also be well-integrated with traditional food security response efforts. In Niger, as in the other Sahel countries, it is not drought forecasts, but the Cadre Harmonisé, a semi-annual food security report, that provides the core analysis for humanitarian response activities. The Government of Niger bases its annual food security support plan (Plan de Soutien) on the Cadre Harmonisé in March/April. 

As the drought pilot trigger is already being monitored in October, the trigger activates emergency drought response payments long before the Plan de Soutien. Given the potential overlap in objectives, target areas, and populations, both need to be carefully aligned.

This includes, for example, the need for regular coordination meetings between the responsible entities in the government and a comprehensive national response framework that defines triggers and intervention modalities for all existing response programs as much as possible in advance. The national Early Warning System unit has recognized this and organized a workshop for concerned actors in early 2022. 

"Early drought response efforts must be well-integrated with traditional food security response efforts."


4) Reach scale: Open the national safety net as a response platform for other partners

After droughts in Niger, organizations such as the World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNICEF and different government agencies each implement their own emergency cash support programs. 

Instead of operating separate programs and duplicating processes, economies of scale could be gained by providing emergency cash transfers through a single program. Given the national coverage of the government’s national safety net program, this would be a natural choice.

In 2021-22, this vision was first put to a test, as UNICEF decided to finance emergency cash transfers through the government drought response pilot in two additional communes. Other partners and the government could do the same in the future.


5) Never stop learning: Demonstrate the impact of acting early

Finally, there is a need to strengthen the evidence base on early action. While the rationale of providing drought relief as early as possible seems intuitive, there is surprisingly little scientific evidence for its impact.

Together with the University of Oxford, the World Bank is conducting an impact evaluation of Niger’s drought response pilot. The randomized controlled trial tests the relative effectiveness of three different cash response modalities for beneficiaries, two of them early and one of them late. 

The government has prepared the implementation of the drought response pilot for 2022-23 with these lessons in mind, for example by pre-positioning contracts for payment service providers and further encouraging the participation of other partners such as WFP. A comprehensive review of the program is scheduled for 2023.  


Felix Lung

Social Protection Specialist, World Bank

Snjezana Plevko

Senior Economist, World Bank

Mahamane Maliki Amadou

Senior Social Protection Specialist, World Bank

Mahamane Mourtala Sani

Social Protection Specialist, World Bank

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