What is the ‘Family Package’ programme?

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Chhour Sopanha, director-general of the National Social Assistance Fund (NSAF) during an interview with The Post on July 19. Heng Chivoan

Currently, poor and vulnerable Cambodians are receiving support from social protection programmes. This includes the establishment of support centres for the impoverished, the National Social Security Fund for civil servants, and the National Veterans and Disabled Fund.

To ensure financial security for its people, the government is planning to introduce a new social protection programme called the Family Package.

The Family Package is a permanent programme which will provide monthly cash payments to vulnerable families in several categories, including pregnant women and new mothers, people with disabilities, people aged 60 and older and people living with HIV. It will also provide scholarships to underprivileged students from grades 1 to 12.

To understand the new programme, The Post spoke with Chhour Sopanha, director-general of the National Social Assistance Fund.

Why did the government create the Family Package programme?

While the Family Package is a new name, it’s not brand new – it’s a programme that merges many of the existing social assistance programmes which are currently in place.

We have begun integrating all of the policies that already exist under our national framework. With this integrated programme, we will establish a social funding institute that is responsible for all benefits.

The National Social Assistance Fund will play a role in implementing the family package framework which is similar to the cash transfer assistance programme for poor and vulnerable families we rolled out during Covid-19. The two programmes have similar approaches, but are different.

The main difference is that the Covid-19 programme is not sustainable. A sub-decree issued in June 2020 stipulated that it was supposed to intervene in situations where people had been directly affected by Covid-19. When the pandemic ends, the Family Package will replace the old system. This is so that even after the Covid-19 payments end, the government will still support vulnerable people.

What kind of people will the Family Package focus on? How will it be implemented?

The Family Package programme does not focus solely on cash transfers, but approaches the problem of poverty from three angles.

The first is to consider which of the five categories of cash support the recipient falls under.

While these people must qualify, usually by ID Poor card assessment, the amount of the payments won’t lift them out of poverty completely; it’s just partial support. For example, pregnant women and new mothers will receive a pregnancy payment of 40,000 riel, a childbirth payment of 200,000 riel, and ten individual payments of 40,000 riel as the child grows. These payments are designed to reduce maternal mortality rates and support improved nutritional outcomes.

The second angle is to provide a system which will improve their livelihoods, by teaching them life skills. If they receive educational training programmes that teach them skills that they can use to generate an income, then they will be able to lift themselves out of poverty more easily.

The third angle is to remember that the vulnerable do not just need cash payments and job training; they need access to other public services, especially the elderly, the disabled and children.

We also have a mechanism in place to set up a social service force for the entire system. Even the best policy won’t work without well trained staff, so we are training more people to ensure there are plenty of good social workers available in each commune.

When will this programme be implemented and is there a time limit?

The Family Package programme will be implemented when Covid-19 is over, so we expect it to be implemented in 2023 or 2024.

To the question of how long it will last – it will last until the end of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mandate. As long as he is still leading the government, the policy will be in place, because he considers social protection one of the government’s key priorities.

In the past, it was suggested that the poor were not being helped, but now we are establishing this new institution to support whoever needs it.

I want to emphasise that this programme is not designed to feed people for life. We want people to help themselves, and we will educate them on how to save their money because nobody should expect the state to feed them completely. In most countries, social assistance is designed to help for a limited period of time, so individuals must take the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty.

What are the benefits of combining the different social assistance programmes?

We are still preparing detailed legal documents, but I want to make it clear that there will be strong reforms. Pregnant women and new mothers will receive the same benefits, but we have revised the rates we pay to the disabled.

Previously, people with light disabilities received 60,000 per year, with medium and severe conditions receiving 120,000 and 240,000 per annum, respectively. These rates have been revised, and we will no longer pay them yearly, but monthly. I don’t yet know the final figures, but they will be better than they were.

The impoverished elderly will also receive monthly payments. At this point, I want to stress why we will means test the elderly. There are only 100,000 people over the age of 75, but there are 360,000 over 60. We cannot support those who can support themselves.

This will of the government is to promote a culture of sharing, so we must first help those who have very little. One example is people living with HIV. Previously they received only treatment and health checkups, but under this new framework, we will provide additional support.

What can be done to make the implementation of the Family Package programme transparent?

I don’t know what the civil societies who are asking for increased transparency are talking about. We have an accountability mechanism in place, and the Ministry of Planning has the data. Each group that is responsible for cash transfers through Wing Bank monitors its own transactions, as do our partners, like the World Bank.

Naturally, people have the right to file a complaint to us through our hotline if they see a wealthy person who is issued an ID Poor card, for example.

According to a World Bank report in April 2021, 99.06 per cent of recipients were satisfied with the programme while just 0.4 per cent were unhappy.

I believe some people were dissatisfied because they wanted to be assessed as poor, but were not. Secondly, those whose livelihoods had improved had their cards cancelled. So far, between 40,000 and 50,000 cards have been deactivated, and some of those people are resentful because they used the extra money not for necessities, but for drinking alcohol or gambling.

How much does the state plan to spend and how many people will benefit?

According to a database of the cash subsidies paid to poor and vulnerable families during Covid-19, no less than 3 million people from nearly 1 million families received benefits. The budget set is no less than $100 million per year.