DIOURBEL, SENEGAL— Humanitarian agencies in Africa's Sahel region are struggling to deal with a cycle of chronic food crisis. Some are moving away from traditional food aid in favor of "cash for work" programs that pay villagers to work on community improvement projects. The U.S. government is considering shifting as much as 45 percent of its $1.4 billion of traditional food aid in this direction. One such program, funded by the USAID Food for Peace Initiative, has been underway for the past seven months.
It's market day in the village of Sadio, but it is also payday for these 800 beneficiaries of Catholic Relief Service's "Yokkuté" program.
Yokkuté means "resilience" in the local Wolof language. By paying participants to work on projects that improve village agriculture and sanitation, Yokkuté aims to get them back on their feet after years of poor harvests.
CRS Program Coordinator Pape Saïd says cash is better than food for this vulnerable population.
"The people can buy the food they would like to have. But people in need have more needs than food alone, like healthcare. So with cash, they can buy food, but they can also address their other needs," said Saïd.
But there are disadvantages to cash as well.
Some beneficiaries like Gass Kane prefer getting food or vouchers so relatives can't spend her earnings on non-essentials.
"We prefer the food because it's useful for the whole family," she said.
CRS does not force them to buy food with the money, but they do encourage it by paying them on market day. They say 87 percent is spent the same day on food. Local shop owners like Waly Faye can see the difference in their sales.
"This program supports the merchants. Before, it was only between the aid organization and the beneficiary. So with the Yokkuté program, they have brought in the small shop owners. So instead of two players, now it's three," said Faye.
Local farmers benefit too, as they can sell their produce and grain without having to compete with food imported from abroad. CRS' Pape Saïd says the work that beneficiaries are doing will actually improve crop yields, even when there is little rain.
"In these half-moons, we are correcting the soil, which is mostly sand. So to increase the water retention, we add manure and compost. Good fertilization could double, triple or quadruple the harvests," said Pape.
Faty Niang appreciates the help in the meantime. She went into debt over the past few years trying to feed eight people, including her 104-year-old husband.
"We used to buy food and medicine with what we had, but now we use the program money for that and now we can save what we had before," said Niang.
She earned $72 for her work in village sanitation this month. Having already repaid her debts, she spent it all on 2 sacks of rice, 40 kilos of grain, 4 liters of cooking oil, 5 kilos of peanuts, 5 kilos of corn, and a bag of mixed vegetables.
She and her family are happy to be part of the program.
Aid groups are watching to see whether USAID will be funding more projects like Yokkuté.