From crisis to breakthrough-supporting Cambodia to reach a social protection milestone

Cambodia’s economic pain is undeniable: the UN estimates poverty will double in 2020. That's why the new COVID-19 cash transfer scheme UNICEF and the Government worked on together is crucial.

Jaime Gill
ID Poor card holder
UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Miguel Jeronimo
20 October 2020

Battambang, October 2020 - Just three months after its first COVID-19 case, the Royal Government of Cambodia rolled out its ground-breaking “COVID-19 Cash Transfer Programme for ID Poor Households”. This was Cambodia’s first nationwide programme providing direct financial support to the full range of its most vulnerable citizens, a true game-changer for its social protection development. UNICEF had laid groundwork through many years of working with the Government to develop social protection systems, all of which were based on the IDPoor scheme for registering low-income families, and played a pivotal role in this significant achievement.

Cambodia’s current economic pain is undeniable. The UN estimates that poverty will nearly double to 17.6% in 2020, leaving families in debt and struggling to meet basic needs such as food, water and healthcare. Without timely intervention, the gains made in children’s nutrition, education and healthcare in the past three decades could be lost. The cash transfer programme has been the Government’s swift response.

Early steps towards this milestone began when UNICEF amplified its advocacy for social protection services aimed at vulnerable mothers and children in 2015. This led to the Government and UNICEF working together on a “Cash Transfer Programme for Poor Pregnant Women and Children (0-2 years old)” pilot in 2016. With the Prime Minister’s support, the programme was scaled to a national level to reach 140,000 beneficiaries and its operation successfully transferred to the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth (MoSVY) in February 2020.

Even as stakeholders celebrated this breakthrough, they didn’t anticipate that the programme would be expanded and amplified very soon. Then came COVID-19…

Erna Ribar, UNICEF Chief of Social Policy, explains: “Developing the new programme from the existing cash transfer scheme was the only way to move forward rapidly enough. However, this required critical design and logistics considerations such as adjusting the system to meet the needs of a much larger programme, reaching people with more diverse needs, improving information dissemination, and finding effective ways of transferring funds. We also had an additional consideration as we developed the program,the hope that it would lay the foundations for Cambodia to develop greater resilience to future economic shocks, ultimately paving the way towards a more equal society.”

UNICEF and the Government worked together with remarkable swiftness, from April’s go-ahead to June’s roll-out. A legal framework was deployed, scheme design implemented, and cost analysis conducted to support budget allocations. The upgrading of existing management information systems, training of province, district and commune staff in the new system, and a nationwide information campaign was enabled through a broad-based partnership with Save The Children, Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and UNDP. This coalition enabled the procurement and distribution of tablets and increased registration of IDPoor families, with more than 640,000 now enrolled in the programme and receiving benefits. Generous support from the European Union (EU) and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) was crucial to the achievement of these results.

UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Miguel Jeronimo
A woman uses the new cash transfer system in a Wing outlet to ensure that eligible citizens receive the payment.

“We really needed this support,” said Loent Yong Phin, 23, a mother from Battambang province. Her family’s income declined disastrously when her husband’s construction work dried up due to COVID-19, which is why she registered to become IDPoor.

“I’m still paying back a loan from when I got bad typhoid. This money means I can repay and afford food. We’ve never had help like this before, it’s so reassuring.”

As the programme was developed, it was also extended to provide additional support to individuals with greater needs, including under-fives, over-60s, and people living with HIV or disabilities.  An existing partnership with a money transfer service called Wing was expanded, creating a network to deliver payments to even remote populations. Participating in the programme also increased financial literacy for over half a million, many of whom were handling money electronically for the first time, thanks to the scheduled payments. 

local authority
UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Miguel Jeronimo
Lieb Sophean, community worker in Battambang, has become a champion for lower-income families

Lieb Sophean, a 37-year-old community worker in Battambang, has worked late every day since programme launch, ensuring everyone eligible for cash transfers is registered and paid. “Most people in our commune lost their jobs, so the programme is a lifeline for them and their children”, she said. Sophean feels lucky to be able to help her neighbours; “For as long as they’re queueing up, I’ll be here doing my job,” she told us, pointing at the long line of villagers patiently waiting to be enrolled.