The coronavirus has negatively impacted the tourist industry in Siem Reap, resulting in loss of income and jobs.

Those affected include JWOC Scholarship students and recent high school graduates who come from low-income families, have little savings, and are financially vulnerable to an economic shock. As a result, these students now lack sufficient funds to meet their immediate basic needs and require appropriate support until normal income generation resumes, and they are able to support themselves again. 

Since April 2020, JWOC and many other nonprofits, businesses, and good-willed individuals have been providing Food Aid to vulnerable families. At the end of April, May and June, in response to the needs, JWOC supported our high risk students with food (rice, noodle, fish canned, hygiene pack, a small budget for vegetables) and top up cards, plus counseling on financial management. We also motivated them to negotiate for the delay on rental and debts. 

Throughout this process, we have been able to learn more about our student’s needs, which is agency and choice; to purchase food, medicine, and rental costs if their family does not have their own land. For example, the mother of one of our students passed away, resulting in funeral costs, one student suddenly became ill and spent what money she had left on a visit to the health clinic, and another had to sell her only means of transportation in order to pay rent.

Why cash transfers?

Cash transfers give our students greater agency and choice in a time when their ability to make decisions is restricted by a lack of employment and the pressure of debts (Plan International). As many of our students are experiencing an unpredictable situation, cash transfers will give them the sense of social protection they need (UNICEF). Because they come from low income families, most of our students also support their families. So, for them, losing income means not just poverty for themselves, but everyone in their families will be affected. More than that, the families that have to pay back the loans are the ones facing the most difficulty.

JWOC began our cash transfer project in July, providing the highest risk students with $35 a month that could be used to fulfill their greatest needs. Providing cash instead of food resulted in several benefits:

  • Zero administration costs: all money goes directly to the student as money doesn’t need to be spent on purchasing and distributing food
  • Promoting local spending: as our students live in different areas within the province, they are able to distribute the cash instead of providing benefits to one wholesaler
  • Greater agency and trust: our students know what is best for themselves, and giving them purchasing power results in greater self-sufficiency and independence. As an added benefit, this also allows us to build greater trust between JWOC and our students.

As stated by the Economist, Amartya Sen, “starvation and famine are causally connected with the inadequacy of income and the inability of the impoverished to buy food”, rather than a shortage of food itself.

With any project, there is a risk that resources will be wasted. Whilst an education program could waste resources through poor teaching performance or lack of student participation, we often have a more adverse reaction to the idea of money being wasted, fearing the recipient will buy cigarettes, beer, or gamble. A cash transfer program is actually very low-risk (Innovations for Poverty Action), however, we have mitigated this risk through open and honest dialogue, building trust, and relying on our years of experience partnering with the students before the crisis. 

Results

In July 2020, JWOC launched our cash transfer project, providing direct financial assistance to the highest risk students in our programs. To ensure that we could capture the impact of this project, the students completed a short survey reflecting on the previous month and their ability to meet their basic needs. 

Month# of transfers% of students meeting basic needs
July1547%
August1354%
September1362%

The surveys demonstrated that less students required support every month, and the percentage of students who could meet their basic needs increased.

Student needs differ, so it is no surprise they tend to make better buying and investment decisions for themselves. The cash transfer recipients used the support to purchase a variety of goods and services, including: 

  • Food
  • Top up cards for online learning
  • Gasoline for transportation
  • Room rental costs
  • Utility bills 
  • Medicine
  • Home gardening
  • Pay for loans / debt

Most students used the cash transfers to buy food and phone top up cards, however, they were also able to use the cash to support their family with daily meals. Overall, students remarked that the cash transfers were more useful than the food support, as they had other needs beyond food, such as loans and health care coverage, such as pre-existing debt and the need to buy medicine for their family members

Some students also reported that having the cash transfer meant that they could develop greater financial literacy, by using it to budget and save for the following month in preparation for inconsistent salary payment at their workplaces due to ongoing budget cuts. Overall, the cash transfer program provided students with the ability to make their own financial decisions, increasing their agency during a difficult time.

Although all students expressed that the cash transfers were helpful, only ⅓ felt that it was “very helpful”, as $35 per month can barely cover the cost of a rent room (excluding utilities) or monthly food expenses. 

Conclusion

Thanks to our donors and supporters, JWOC’s cash transfer project has made a sizable impact in just a few short months, increasing agency and choice among our vulnerable youth. However, it has also demonstrated that the financial support we have provided has not been enough. As such, we have decided to increase the monthly stipend to $50 per student.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank our donors and the South East Asia Foundation for enabling us to increase the level of our cash transfers over the upcoming months.

We will continue to conduct monthly surveys and monitor the ongoing needs of our students. At the end of December, JWOC will also reassess our financial ability to continue the program.

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