Cash for Coffins? What happened when Oxfam gave poor Vietnamese a lump sum

April 16, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve just been reading the latest evaluation of an Oxfam project I’ve started to call ‘cash for coffins’ in Viet Nam. From mid-2006 Oxfam GB directly disbursed non-emergency cash grants to 550 poor and near poor households in An Loc commune, a poor rice-growing community on the Central coast of Viet Nam. Not only is this one-off cash transfer (aka ‘just give them the money’) pilot project unique to Vietnam but it is also distinctive given its establishment outside of an emergency situation and with only minimum conditions (no alcohol, gambling or drugs) placed upon how people spent the money. (I’ve previously blogged on cash transfers in emergencies here.)

How were the families chosen? This is the tricky part. Beneficiaries were selected in a participatory manner by a group of village representatives which included the village head, a mass organisation representative member and a villager. This group qualitatively ranked households one by one, using the criteria ‘poor’, ‘near-poor’/’average’ or ‘better-off’. From a total of 846 households in the Commune’s eight villages, 550 were selected. The list was deliberated over in a village meeting, and villagers were able to comment and in some cases information was verified via an investigation.

What happened? Initial reviews 6 months, a year and 18 months after the money was handed out found: 

  • Improvements in peoples food security had occurred, particularly given that the cash transfer came at a time of food insecurity for the poorest households
  • Drop out rates at schools had declined
  • Concerns over the occurrence of conflict during beneficiary selection and the impacts on community solidarity

Here’s some more detail from the evaluations:

  • The sudden injection of VND6.5 million to 422 households (the rest got about half that much as they weren’t so poor) that have an average monthly per capita income of VND179,834 is significant. To one person the amount given represented three years’ wages in one transaction. The money made significant impacts on people’s lives, reducing the number of poor households whilst boosting their productive assets – many invested in cows.
  • Impressive results recorded include improved community infrastructure, new opportunities for the youth and unemployed, increased community/social activities, increased female participation, improved respect for the law and general improvements in people’s state of mind in regards to a reduction in the stress and worry they experienced.
  • Prior to the project’s involvement, the poverty rate was falling at 5% a year. Following the injection of cash transfers it witnessed a 20% decrease, from 65.1% in 2006 to a 2008 rate of 40.2%. The commune committee attributed this decrease directly to the cash transfers.
  • Women’s involvement in the project, through the countersigning of all cash withdrawals, had a significant impact on gender equity. The investment choices made meant that women reported fewer financial worries and stress, giving them time to participate in different areas of community life, such as community meetings, village sports and cultural activities. This in turn led to increased confidence in interacting with others, speaking out and raising their opinions, particularly in village level meetings. This was all facilitated by the building of a community house, providing a new space for participation. Women reported that men’s responsibility towards the household had improved due to improved economic stability – “Men only drink one glass of rice wine instead of two now!” said one woman.

And why ‘cash for coffins’? Investments into coffins and family tombs were recorded by a number of beneficiaries. Coffins were seen as a particularly important investment by older people. Interviews showed that larger families placed great value on investing into the upkeep of the family tomb. Spirituality clearly plays a major role in the lives of people in An Loc and the expenditure reflects this. Although this was not the target of the project, i.e. it is not a productive asset, there is an inextricable link between people’s spirituality and their physiological well-being that cannot be discounted and should be considered a positive unexpected outcome. In the eyes of beneficiaries this has long term significance in their lives and was mentioned on numerous occasions during the field work.

It wasn’t all plain sailing: despite the openness of the selection process, there were tensions between those who received the grants and those who did not. If we’d had the money, it might have been better to make the grant universal in An Loc to avoid this problem. 

Overall, the experiment suggests that unconditional cash transfers can be a good way to support and empower poor people, even outside of emergencies. If you want to see the full evaluation, please email me.

April 16, 2009
Duncan Green