Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 342 | Enero 2010



Zero Hunger: Development or Just Raindrops?

In February 2009 the Dutch Embassy released an evaluation it had contracted of Nicaragua’s Zero Hunger Program. The report covers the first year and a half of one of the FSLN government’s “star programs,” but is still valid, as “not many changes are forecast for 2009,” according to the text. The following is an edited selection of the report’s descriptions, evaluations and conclusions.

Paul Kester

The implementation of a food security and nutrition program is justified in Nicaragua, where 22% of the population was malnourished between 2003 and 2005, according to the most recent figures of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. In absolute terms this means 1.2 million people. In Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole this figure was 8% in the same period. Chronic child malnutrition affects 27.2% of Nicaraguan children under five years old, with 20.7% growth retarded and 6.5% suffering severe malnutrition.

To deal with this situation, the Government of Recon¬ciliation and National Unity has designed various programs as well as a bill on nutritional sovereignty and security. In practice, the issue has got little further than good intentions, with the exception of the Productive Food Program (PPA), better known as Zero Hunger, to be executed between 2007 and 2011.

Capitalize, train and organize

The concept came from similar programs in other Latin American countries, based on efforts to create a social security and food safety net for the most impoverished strata, although the Nicaraguan program is different from its homologues. Brazil’s Fome Cero, for example, is the cornerstone of its public food security policy and one of the linchpins of the different ministries. It is made up of four areas: access to food (this area alone already has 14 sub-programs); strengthening of family agriculture; income generation; and linkage, mobilization and social control. Fome Cero also has a strong civic participation component, broadly integrating the experiences of local civil organizations as an expression of public-private cooperation.

In Nicaragua, the Food Security Policy, with the PPA as one of its most important components, forms part of the current government’s social policy. The PPA’s five-year objective is to “eradicate hunger, chronic malnutrition, extreme poverty and unemployment among 75,000 poor rural families through the quantitative and qualitative increase in the production and consumption of protein, while at the same time favoring the substitution of firewood consumption with bio-gas.” By January 2009 the PPA target had grown to 80,000 benefited families.

Three specific objectives are defined for this purpose: 1) Capitalize these 75,000 impoverished peasant families who have tenure or access to 0.7 to 1.5 hectares of land, through the transfer of protein-producing goods and a bio-digestor; 2) train these same families in social, administrative and technological aspects; and 3) organize them so they can manage their revolving funds.

The others were left out

In its presentation phase, the Zero Hunger program triggered some controversy due to a lack of clarity about its what and how, and above all its for whom. The PPA was formally inaugurated in May 2007, in Raití, a Miskitu indigenous community on the part of the Río Coco that borders Honduras.

The PPA is under the Policy Division of the Agricultural and Forestry Ministry (MAGFOR), with an executive technical team dedicated to operational planning and technical-administrative implementation. The political secretaries of the governing FSLN party participate in selecting beneficiaries in many departmental and municipal PPA coordinating bodies.

According to its managers, the Zero Hunger program is based on social and business promotion rather than charity, connecting beneficiary families living in extreme poverty to the local, national and international economy. It grew out of the experiences of similar initiatives developed by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) linked to the FSLN, particularly CIPRES, in rural areas of the country starting in 1990. CIPRES coordinator Orlando Núñez formulated the general lines of the PPA during 2005 and 2006, before the FSLN’s victory in the 2006 elections. According to him, “Nicaragua spent $180 million annually in 53 agencies aimed at combating poverty, but that’s expensive for a government. So we proposed that this program be executed by the mayor’s offices, NGOs, churches and associations. The country gets $500 million to combat poverty, but we only need $90 million, out of which a revolving fund will then be created to ensure that the program is sustainable.”

One of the options Núñez proposed was to involve NGOs in implementation of the PPA, given their experience in rural areas. The government discarded that option, arguing that such a modality would considerably increase the operational costs, although it couldn’t prove that position with figures. The emergence of disputes between the government and NGOs over the course of 2007 and the fact that 2008 was an electoral year may have influenced the decision to restrict PPA implementation to public institutions, leaving the others out.

For women heads of family

Zero Hunger’s main instrument is the Productive Food Bond, which consists of giving beneficiaries a certain number of goods—cows, sows, hens, seeds, fruit trees and construction materials—valued at around $1,500. The PPA calculates operational expenses at $500 per beneficiary, which raises the program’s total cost over the five years to $160 million for 80,000 families. The funds come largely from the national budget, Alba-Caruna and other donors.

The PPA bonds are issued mainly to women heads of family, who must meet these criteria: 1) need, i.e. the family must be in a state of extreme poverty suffering at least two of the five basic unmet needs (overcrowding, inadequate housing, insufficient services, low education levels and economic dependence); 2) capacity, i.e. the family must have a yard or plot of .7 to 1.5 hectares available for the animals and plants provided by the bond; and 3) commitment, i.e. the beneficiaries must pledge to participate in training workshops, not sell the animals issued to them, organize into “nuclei” and save-contribute the equivalent of 20% of the bond’s value to create a rural revolving fund for the development of their community.

A high percentage of the bonds is delivered to families in zones of extreme poverty of the northern departments (Nueva Segovia, Madriz, Jinotega and Matagalpa), with lower assignation to those in the central and southeastern zones—which also have high percentages of extreme poverty. This unevenness could be explained by the more intense pressure from FSLN political leaders in the northern departments.

Selection of beneficiaries is a touchy issue

The PPA management is implementing the program with the state entities that direct agricultural and forestry development. This means not only mass purchase of the goods provided to the beneficiaries but also taking charge of the technical assistance to them and following up on their comprehensive development. It’s all done with state means and resources, avoiding as much as possible any linkage with existing rural programs and projects, even those with many years of experience. This increases the costs, mainly because it isn’t taking advantage of the former trial and error aspect, thus affecting the program’s efficiency.

A beneficiary selection structure has been set up at the departmental, municipal and district levels with the participation of representatives from MAGFOR, the Councils of Citizen’s Power (CPC) and FSLN political secretaries. Considering the limited number of bonds and large number of rural and semi-urban families living in extreme poverty, beneficiary selection is becoming a sensitive component. The criteria related to level of poverty aren’t clear enough to define the target group, so political criteria have an influence as well, which is questionable. In addition, providing goods in such a directed and selective manner can be negative for the development of the communities, in which social capital is built on the mutual confidence built up among their residents. This program is very probably not contributing to this process.

The CPCs, which are political and party-based entities, are a fixed actor in the program’s departmental coordination bodies. They play an important role in pushing the PPA’s selection and implementation process at the municipal and district level. Their involvement in local beneficiary selection depends on both the correlation of political forces within this new arena and on the personal ethics of each member of the municipal and district bodies.

At each level, one obligatory function of these bodies is to resolve any controversies that arise over the selection of benefited families. But it’s not clear what procedures or mechanisms should be used to resolve these controversies or what possibilities there are for potential beneficiaries to appeal.

Benefiting a family with a package of capitalization goods such as animals and plants can make the difference between staying in abject poverty and escaping it, as long as the beneficiary shows sufficient enterprising spirit. Issuing the bond to the woman is a positive element in achieving greater levels of gender equity in the countryside and giving women the chance to become more involved in the economy and ensure a better future for their children.

These opportunities must be given to all women living in poverty, independent of their political sympathies. And the strategy must not only have a distributive nature; it must also be geared to creating a social, educational, economic and political setting that offers such opportunities to those living in adverse circumstances.

How appropriate are cows?

The bond’s composition has been a much discussed topic. Although theoretically families could benefit from a cow, they’re not always in a position to manage it correctly. Similarly she-goats and pelibuey ewes can contribute milk, cheese and cuajada (a fresh curdled cheese-like product) to the family diet, but they cause a lot of damage to the vegetation in the yard or plot. Some of the animals provided require prepared feed and the family must be able to provide it to avoid them becoming too weak to produce milk or eggs and even dying. The PPA is aware of this problem and since mid-2008 has been introducing measures to make the bond’s contents more flexible.

Logistical organization has been a major challenge. PPA management must find and buy huge numbers of goods and store them in different places in the departments and municipalities before distributing them among the beneficiaries in urban barrios and rural districts. Animals have reportedly died from exhaustion and lumber and cement have been stolen during this phase. The army has provided support, but in many cases the fuel and vigilance costs are high.

MAGFOR-PPA is aware that acquisition of quality cows is a problem. Given the large number of animals they have to buy, the technicians cannot analyze the animals’ health in any real depth. As a consequence, a certain percentage of cows do not yield what the beneficiaries expected, leading to frequent complaints that “the cow they gave us only gives one or two liters a day,” although there are no exact data on this. There have been fewer problems with pigs and chickens.

Is there quality training?

One of the objectives of the PPA is to create more capacities in the beneficiary groups so they can gradually link into the local and national economy. Training and technical assistance components are essential to achieve that, but their quality varies from one department to another. Technicians can only get to some hard-to-reach zones once a month to fill out the beneficiaries’ progress cards and give them some advice.

Various national and/or international NGOs have been implementing projects and programs in the different areas in which the PPA is involved, and they have technicians with appropriate knowledge and the needed experience. Nonethe¬less, the central role of MAGFOR-PPA in the implementation of Zero Hunger means there’s little exchange among the technical teams.

Speaking with PPA technicians in different zones also revealed that they are very willing to attend the beneficiaries, working—and walking—many more hours than were established. Nonetheless, the means of transport and communication provided to them are deficient and there are delays in payment of their salaries and per diems. They are also assigned additional tasks from other MAGFOR programs, which affects the quality of the attention to the PPA beneficiaries. Although accompanying the beneficiaries is hugely important, the human and technical resources dedicated to this task are insufficient, so there’s a very long road to travel before families living in extreme poverty are transformed into productive agents for the local and national economy.

Is the revolving fund functioning?

The methodology the PPA is applying consists of forming nuclei of 50 women from different communities who elect a board of directors with a president, secretary, treasurer and monitors from among their members. How often they meet depends on how close—or rather how far—they live from each other. In remote areas they might meet once a month. The centerpiece of the nuclei is the establishment of a revolving fund, made up mainly of the monetary resources obtained as a result of capitalizing the goods provided by the PPA, with each woman pledging to contribute to the fund the equivalent of 20% of the value of the bond she received.

The revolving fund, managed by the board, is for providing loans to the women in the nucleus for personal or family needs or for general community development. A joint bank account is opened in a local financial institution in the name of two board members, generally the treasurer and president.

The PPA requires the beneficiaries to organize soon after having received the bond. But successful development of the nucleus depends on various factors: 1) the presence of leaders with enough capacity and recognition; 2) the women living close enough to each other to be able to make up a sufficient “critical mass” to implement and monitor the planned actions; 3) the quality of the technical, social and economic advice. So far, the PPA management and its departmental liaisons have noted a gradual increase in the amounts saved, although they recognize that the earnings obtained from the bonds are still minimal.

Two organizational risks

In many cases, the women benefited by the PPA are not organized. In areas where other rural development programs were already being implemented, women’s committees were formed long ago. Creation of the PPA nuclei could affect existing projects and other structures of trust that have been under construction.

The PPA must consider two other aspects of its organiizational component. First, the number of beneficiaries within a district is relatively small, which could distance those benefited from those not benefited in a single community. Second, the program’s temporary nature entails a danger that the beneficiaries organized by state entities will feel abandoned. Both of these factors could trigger community decomposition and frustration. Only a long-term commitment to this type of development program, whether state-run or not, can achieve a successful community management process and build solid social capital.

And gender relations?

Having rural women manage the Productive Bond is the correct decision. Assigning them capitalization goods and promoting their organization to achieve a greater impact in their household and community economy increases their self-esteem as people and as agents of change. But achieving equitable gender relations is a very long process requiring long-term professional accompaniment that also involves the men.

Given its operational nature, the PPA’s gender policy lacks two basic strategic elements: 1) MAGFOR’s institutional capacity to provide that professional accompaniment and 2) a component through which women can acquire land in their own name, as an input for involving them as economic actors in society. The women beneficiaries themselves point to this as one of their most felt needs.

MAGFOR-PPA officials and technicians say that the men agreed to have the goods assigned to their wives, which we verified in field visits. Nonetheless, in some cases husbands or sons did not accept, so the women were forced to return the bond they received. In other cases the men sold the animals at market, pocketing the earnings. Although these may be exceptional cases, we recommend doing a study on the gender relations in the PPA in the coming years.

Transparency and accountability

Transparent organization and implementation is a condition sine qua non for acceptance of a state development program or project in which public resources are invested. The discretionary manner in which the Alba-Caruna funds are being handled and the fact that the other donors—perhaps with the exception of the future IDB-PPA project—are not very demanding about accountability in a program as socially and politically sensitive as Zero Hunger could reduce its impact and affect future attention to food security, which is so fundamentally important to Nicaragua in both the short and medium future.

Having an independent monitoring system to analyze the progress and problems the families encounter in their agricultural development is fundamental to making the appropriate adjustments to beneficiary selection, procedures for delivering the goods, and training. The current reports from the PPA technicians offer an interesting panorama on the immediate technical-financial results, but are not appropriate for an authentic systematization of the program with all its variables. Given their direct participation in developing the beneficiaries’ capacities, technicians become both judge and jury in practice, undermining the objectivity of the data gathered and presented. But we were told that there are no funds to set up an independent system and no plans to establish one.

How is this expensive
program being financed?

In early 2007 the executive branch asked the National Assembly to approve 185 million córdobas (roughly $10 million) to implement the PPA that year. Those resources weren’t obtained until the third quarter of the year, causing serious delays in program implementation. The money, which came from treasury tax income and poverty alleviation funds from the Inter-American Development Bank, represented 18.7% of MAGFOR’s total spending and barely 1.3 % of total spending in the fight against poverty.

In 2008 the PPA budget grew to 348.7 million córdobas (around $18.4 million), equivalent to 1.2% of total government spending. The objective of that year’s budget was to finance Productive Bonds for some 13,000 families, and the PPA also had to complement incomplete bonds given to many families, above all in the Caribbean region where the devastation of Hurricane Felix in late 2007 created logistical problems.

Apart from the treasury funds, the PPA is financed by the European Union through the DECOSUR program being implemented in the department of Rivas and the PRODELSA program in 15 northern municipalities. In 2008 the PPA received an 89-million-córdoba donation from the World Food Program and a 52-million-córdoba loan from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, while the IDB showed interest in co-financing it to the tune of US$20 million. The PPA also indirectly receives a lot of resources—both monetary and technical and human—through the Common Fund created by several donor countries to implement the sectoral program called PRORURAL.

Yet another source of PPA funding is ALBA-CARUNA, a party/state credit institution fed with Venezuelan funds that has taken responsibility for financing 10,000 Backyard Economy Bonds (worth 3,000 córdobas, or about $150 each) for poor families in the semi-urban areas of Managua and other cities in the Pacific and central areas of the country. ALBA-CARUNA will invest another US$10 million in Productive Food Bonds in several other areas of the country, also with Venezuelan funds.

The PPA is an expensive program: some $150 million, which amounts to $2,000 per beneficiary. If the PPA could respond to all of the roughly 300,000 rural and semi-urban families living in extreme poverty, it would cost $600 million, approximately the entire amount Nicaragua receives annually from international cooperation.

Will it get people out of poverty?

Despite all the attention the government of Nicaragua is giving to food security, it lacks a coherent policy with strategies that are aligned among all the national and local actors. The PPA is one of the strategic actions, but it’s a “flag ship” only minimally linked to other components of the food security policy. Issues such as access to water, health care, education and land, as well as road and communication infrastructure, should be linked to development policy, which in turn should be accompanied by an inclusive process of civic participation.

Reducing—and finally eliminating—poverty is a long-term process that requires the determination of all of society’s political and economic actors. Its success implies implementing a fair and efficient tax system that allows the state to collect more funds. It requires a willingness to constantly invest a greater part of the state’s income into linked social programs, above all in the rural zones. According to a “raw” United Nations indicator, a child can escape the vicious circle of poverty only if he or she manages to finish secondary school, yet according to Human Development Index data, only 10% of young people from Nicaragua’s rural zones even have access to secondary education. This means that nine out of every ten of them won’t be able to escape poverty.

At the micro level, the goods provided by the PPA could change the lives of the benefited families, as long as they have an enterprising spirit and know how to exploit market opportunities. In other cases, the goods—specifically the animals—will just join whatever they already have on their tiny farm and life will go on as usual.

The question is: What impact will the PPA have on local society? Will its investments increase the social capital? The way the program is currently structured, the Productive Bonds could be considered drops of rain that fall willy-nilly on a dry surface. If that little piece of land is fertile thanks to an enterprising spirit, something beautiful could flower where the drops fall. But everything will probably remain the same where there is no such spirit and where no drops fall.

Paul Kester is a Dutch development project research consultant.

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