FFW: DFID sets the record straight

The first days of the last session of the Andhra Pradesh State Assembly (November 11-22, 2002) were dominated by heated debate on the Food-For-Work (FFW) programme with the Opposition accusing the Government of Andhra Pradesh of serious irregularities and misappropriation of resources. The arguments were fuelled by a series of trenchant newspaper reports (including in The Hindu of November 21, "Judicial Probe into FFW `irregularities' demanded") that purportedly used primary research conducted by us. Some of the articles erroneously claimed that the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) had conducted the study, others attacked the leading party and portrayed that too as our primary objective. This article stands back from the debate, sets the record straight, and makes a number of constructive suggestions for the improved implementation of FFW.

The objective of our study was not to lay blame at the door of any particular party but was to highlight problems of design that are generic in FFW programmes and problems of misallocation that, in fact, are endemic in many countries. While adversarial politics and a much valued free press in Andhra Pradesh have helped to expose the cornering of benefits by the elite it is unfortunate that our field evidence was used by Opposition parties to seek credibility and respect at the expense of the ruling party. FFW programmes were introduced in India in the 1970s. As a concept, FFW has always been popular among planners, NGOs and activists because of its promise of creating win-win situations where poor people are provided with food in exchange for labour during periods of unemployment resulting from external calamities such as drought, floods and earthquakes. FFW has received even more support recently as a solution to resolving the problem of very large food stocks held by the Food Corporation of India co-existing with large numbers of hungry and underemployed people in drought-hit States.

When they have worked well, FFW programmes have provided a vital means of sustaining life and livelihood. However, such programmes have also created tempting opportunities for misappropriation by diverting food and subsidies intended for the poor. Without the appropriate safeguards, and whatever the country concerned, FFW lends itself easily to corruption and appropriation. The latest round of FFW in Andhra Pradesh has witnessed misappropriation on a very large scale and reports to this effect have appeared in English and Telugu newspapers nearly every day for more than a year from the time the programme was launched in September 2001. Allegations were made by all sides against each other and it was abundantly clear that corruption was widespread and was not limited to any particular political party or level of office.

We have been involved in a study of the rural livelihood strategies of the poor in six villages across Andhra Pradesh. During the study we collected household level employment data. Some of this employment was on FFW, and villagers made it abundantly clear that FFW was for them an important programme with the potential to make a real difference to their lives in times of hardship.

The research was done under the aegis of the Livelihood Options Project of the Overseas Development Institute. Other dimensions of livelihoods were also covered including access to microfinance, and natural resources, and diversification into the non-farm economy. The results did indeed show that most of the free rice provided under the FFW programme had not reached the intended beneficiaries. The programme was being implemented in a top-down manner instead of through a needs-based, consultative process. We identified various loopholes in the design and implementation of the programme, and have made constructive suggestions on how the necessary safeguards and implementation procedures can be strengthened.

It is encouraging to note that Government efforts to catch and punish those guilty of misappropriation are gaining momentum. But our main concern is that our study should be helpful in drawing out lessons for future design and policy namely:

The need to set wages at such a level that they attract the very poor, i.e. those who are too poor to migrate out (it is rarely the poorest who can migrate) and have few options for work locally when there is drought. In fact it is this very group of people that the programme was meant to target but actually attracted better off people because wages were set too high.

The need for independent monitoring and evaluation so that problems of claiming the full rice quota for partially completed works, claiming rice for old works, putting claims for the same work to different departments and use of labour-displacing machinery can be avoided in the future.

The need for more emphasis on social mobilisation and helping the poor to exercise their "voice" in making known to government what their own needs and priorities are.

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