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United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)

Under the Radar:
Community Safety Nets for Children Affected by HIV/AIDS in Poor Households in Sub-Saharan Africa

Geoff Foster

United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)

January 2005

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Executive summary

Safety nets are formal or informal mechanisms that mitigate the effects of poverty and other risks on vulnerable households during times of severe stress. In sub-Saharan Africa, the extended family, assisted by the community at large, is by far the most effective response for people facing household crises. Since state-administered support is non-existent throughout most of Africa, social insurance for most people is provided through kinship ties that enable household members to access economic, social, psychological and emotional support from their relatives in times of need.

Many more households are now being affected by social and economic crises as a result of HIV/AIDS and extended family support systems are being increasingly stressed. Many of those affected rely upon community members, including neighbours, friends and community associations, to cope with the impacts of AIDS on their households. Yet though frequently alluded to, community safety nets are poorly understood, especially in relation to HIV/AIDS and have been inadequately described. This paper provides a review of published literature concerning community safety nets and assesses previously documented examples of their functioning, especially in relation to households and children affected by HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

Section 2 outlines organized and formal private systems and those that operate at household, family and civil society levels. Formal and informal safety nets provide support to households facing social and economic crises:

  • Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments provide formal and public sector safety nets using mechanisms such as price subsidies, public works, food or micro-credit programmes and cash transfers to targeted households through pensions and allowances.

  • Informal systems involve transfers or exchange of cash, food, clothing, informal loans, assistance with work or child-care and the provision of accommodation. These informal and private safety net mechanisms may be provided by:
    • Relatives belonging to extended families
    • Community members, either individually or corporately
The section discusses the limitations of public safety nets and describes the relationship between activities designed to build the economic resources of households and those that act as safety nets to households facing destitution. The inter-relationship between extended family and community safety nets is depicted.

Section 3 describes the impact of HIV/AIDS on households and children at three different stages:

  • following the onset of illness;
  • death;
  • long-term consequences for orphans.
The section outlines the direct and indirect economic costs to households and the consequences of these impacts including migration and household disintegration.

Section 4 describes the ways in which households coping with the impact of HIV/AIDS seek to improve their food security and maintain their household expenditure patterns by raising or maintaining their income, by adopting three main strategies:

  • Drawing down savings or selling assets
  • Altering household composition:
  • Utilizing assistance from other households
Section 5 considers the ways in which households affected by HIV/AIDS cope. The section considers both formal and informal support mechanisms and summarises evidence concerning the nature and timing of informal transfers and the relative value of transfers from relatives and community members.

Section 6 considers the dimensions, mechanisms, strengths and deficiencies of community safety nets. The components of community safety nets are considered by examining the roles of social support groups, informal associations, self-help groups, community-based and faith-based organizations, as well as the roles played by individuals and local businesses in providing support and economic services within communities. Six broad components of community safety nets may be considered in relation to the support of households affected by HIV/AIDS:

  1. savings associations to which households in crisis belong
  2. business and agricultural cooperatives to which households in crisis belong
  3. loan providers and savings collectors providing services to households in crisis
  4. philanthropic groups providing support to households in crisis
  5. philanthropic individuals providing support to households in crisis
  6. community groups providing support to people affected by HIV/AIDS
Section 7 analyses the functioning of community safety nets by considering the extent and effectiveness of community safety nets, the types of households that access them, and the occasions for and methods of accessing community safety nets. The section summarises changes in community safety net mechanisms that have taken place as a result of HIV/AIDS and considers the resilience of community coping mechanisms.

Section 8 considers the role of governments, NGOs and the World Bank in strengthening or undermining community safety nets whilst section 9 outlines some of the research questions that could give more focus to what is needed to build virtuous cycles of support between households, community safety nets, and state or NGOs responses.

Following this review, a separately-funded study will be conducted in Zimbabwe to measure the amount and type of support provided by community members to needy households affected by HIV/AIDS containing children so that the dimensions of the community safety net in relation to HIV/AIDS-affected households can be better defined.

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