Savong is still in primary school, but as the eldest of six children his mother often looks to him to help support his family when his father is away at work. I met Savong at his school in Ek Phnom district, and afterwards he took us to his house – just a shack by Western standards – where we met his mother and siblings. Cramped under this makeshift shelter – sheets of corrugated iron held up by planks of wood, with fabric strung up to section off a sleeping area – Savong’s mother Sam welcomed us in and began to explain their situation.
“My family is suffering because we do not have enough food. It is difficult to earn enough money to support my children,” she told us, cradling her youngest child in her arms.
Often in situations such as these, the older children have no choice but to work in order to earn some extra cash for the family. Also common in North Western parts of Cambodia – where Ek Phnom is situated – is for families to pack up and move to the Thai border, where they can earn more money in the farming and service industries. Both options are disastrous for a child’s education – at best forcing them to miss extended periods of school, and at worst forcing them to drop out entirely. SeeBeyondBorders’ Conditional Cash Payments Program (CCP) provides families like Savong’s with support to help them keep sending their children to school.
Savong has been receiving CCP support for nearly a year, and the result has been positive. SeeBeyondBorders has provided his family with a small cash payment (which averages at 41GBP or 83AUD per year for one student) on the condition that his attendance at school improves. “It is easier now to come to school,” Savong told us. “I have bought books, pens and clothes for school.”
Sam too is grateful for the support that CCP provides. She says that she’d like Savong to stay in school and eventually become a teacher himself, although “he likes painting and he wants to become an artist. When he has free time, he always paints at home.” Whatever Savong chooses to do in future, a solid education will give him a fair start in life.
Organisations such as UNESCO and the World Bank have widely evidenced the effectiveness of Conditional Cash Transfers as a way of tangibly addressing poverty. UNESCO reported in 2015 that cash transfers have helped to ensure equitable access to education in Cambodia, while a 2009 World Bank report concluded that cash transfers have generally been successful in reducing poverty and encouraging parents to invest in the health and education of their children.
More broadly, over the past two decades there has been a noticeable shift towards cash transfers as the intervention of choice for aid and development organisations, in recognition of the fact that it respects the agency and rights of the recipient. As a 2013 article from The Economist puts it: “For decades, it was thought that the poor needed almost everything done for them and that experts knew best what this was. Few people would trust anyone to spend $1,000 responsibly… From around 2000, a different idea started to catch on: governments [and organisations] gave poor households small stipends to spend as they wished—on condition that their children went to school or visited a doctor regularly… Households can absorb a surprising amount of cash and put it to good use.”
Over the past two decades there has been a noticeable shift towards cash transfers as the intervention of choice for aid and development organisations, in recognition of the fact that it respects the agency and rights of the recipient.
At SeeBeyondBorders, the evidence for CCP’s effectiveness has also been compelling. The program was only introduced in early 2015; another aspect of our Getting to School focus area, which aims to raise attendance levels by addressing the causes of absenteeism. (As well as CCP, we hold community health workshops to tackle preventable illnesses; we provide supplementary lessons to help students who have fallen behind in class catch up with their peers; and we help teachers deliver sports lessons to make school a more fun and appealing place to be.) In addition to Ek Phnom, we introduced CCP to schools in Bavel and Angkor Thom district – 9 schools in total, reaching 190 students. Already we have seen the attendance levels of those students selected to receive CCP support increase from an average of 79% to 93%.
For some children, the solution to their poor attendance levels is even more simple than a cash transfer. Dara attends the same school as Savong in Ek Phnom, and was also identified by the CCP Committee as at risk of dropping out due to extremely low attendance levels. The Committee, made up of teachers from the school, supported by SeeBeyondBorders staff, personally visit all of those families identified as underprivileged, to assess their circumstances and ensure the CCP goes to the most vulnerable.
When they visited Dara’s family the cause of her absenteeism was immediately clear. Situated off a narrow dusty track in rural Battambang province, it took Dara almost an hour each way to walk to school. With just one bicycle as the family’s only means of transport, Dara was able to cycle to school on the days that her mother stayed at home – but often her mother needed the bicycle to travel to the market to earn their income. The CCP Committee recommended that SeeBeyondBorders provide Dara with a bicycle, on the condition that her attendance improves and that she take responsibility for its maintenance.
“I like the CCP committee because it helps me to go to school,” Dara said. “Now it is just a few minutes [to get to school]. I hope that the CCP will continue because I like to study.”
Dara’s family are in a similarly precarious situation to Savong’s. Technically homeless, they have constructed a one-room property beside a relative’s house, itself not much more than a raised platform with a roof to protect its inhabitants from the rain. As we spoke to Dara’s mother, her husband was busy repairing fishing nets round the back of the building, which he uses to catch fish from the river.
She described to us her situation. “Typically I spend my mornings doing housework, and looking after my son [Dara’s younger brother, who is four years old]. In the afternoons I prepare the fish sausage to be sold in the market.” She refers to a common snack in Cambodia, produced by mincing fish and packaging the paste in small plastic tubes. Tied together into strings of ten or twenty, fish sausage is a common sight at market stalls in Cambodia. But for her afternoons of fiddly and repetitive work, Dara’s mother can only hope to fetch around 2,000 riel (or 50 cents) for every 100 sold.
“Before I was concerned I needed to find money to buy Dara a bicycle,” she told us. “I am very happy that Dara is able to use the bicycle from SeeBeyondBorders to go to school.”
Back at the school, we had a chance to meet the members of the CCP Committee who identify these families most at risk. The job, they explain, is not without challenges: all of the children who attend the school are from families that would be considered ‘low income’, and those who do receive CCP can sometimes be the target of some jealousy.
“We have been able to help 10 children so far [at this school], but so many more could use help.” CC
The Cambodian Ministry of Planning has taken steps to gather data on poverty levels through their Identification of Poor Households Program (IDPoor). Three categorisations enable comparable countrywide data on household incomes and assets, with IDPoor Level 1 households being the most impoverished. Anecdotally these families are described as those with little or no assets to speak of. The CCP Committee starts by undertaking their own assessment of those families categorised as IDPoor Level 1.
One member of the CCP Committee described to us the difficult decisions they face. “I am very happy to be part of the committee, but here we have many more poor students. We have been able to help 10 children so far [at this school], but so many more could use help. Our staff visited 50 families and we chose the 10 that we felt were most vulnerable. Some of the others [for example] had IDPoor cards but they do have homes and motorcycles. It is very difficult.”
With so many families in Cambodia living in poverty, it is easy to see why education is not prioritised. The first year of CCP has shown us that such a simple intervention can incentivise families to support their children’s education. But with limited funding at present, SeeBeyondBorders has to ensure that CCP support is only targeted towards the most vulnerable few, even though many more are desperately in need of help. With the help of our supporters and partners, we hope to scale up CCP, helping more underprivileged families to send their children to school. And with our Teach the Teacher and Better Schools focus areas, we intend to give them the best education we can when they are at school.
Please help us continue to strengthen our work by donating here. 83AUD is all it costs on average to support a child’s education for one year through our CCP program. While this is just one small aspect of what SeeBeyondBorders is doing to help rebuild Cambodia’s education system, it goes to show how much your support counts.
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 The payment is delivered in two instalments, and while the payment is not required to be returned if the conditions aren’t met, it does affect eligibility for future support.