Kampong Cham province’s Prey Chhor district: Sim Chreb, a recently-unemployed mother of two said late last month that her family has been waiting to receive more information on a cash transfer from the government after hearing about the plan to help impoverished families amid Covid-19 one week before.
She lives with her husband and daughters, aged 10 and 1, in a sparse wooden home with no walls in Trapaing Preah commune’s Prey Tralach village. She and her husband both lost their jobs as construction workers due to the Covid-19 crisis, and have no relatives to rely on for financial support.
“I have not yet received [social assistance] because they [local authorities] have not come yet. I do not know when I will receive it,” Chreb said, adding that she also did not know the process of how to receive the cash transfer.
Chreb is one of 2.3 million disadvantaged Cambodians who qualify for the government’s new social funding assistance announced in late June to help those who have been disproportionately affected during the Covid-19 pandemic.
But civil society groups have raised concerns over the accuracy of how the social assistance funds are dispersed, saying that local authorities tasked with allocating the funds are not providing them to the poorest families, instead favoring their own relatives. Meanwhile, families are unsure of when they will receive their cash transfer, and say they are receiving little information from local officials on how to proceed.
During an official launch of the new cash distribution plan on June 24, Hun Sen said that the government will allocate about $25 million in the first round of payments, with the possibility to spend more.
“If poverty continues to increase, we will expend $30 million more because we have to ensure that no one starves to death,” Hun Sen said. “We will not let it go unresolved.”
According to the plan, funds will be sent out based on the poverty level indicated on a family’s ID Poor card, taking into account whether they live in a rural or urban area. In Phnom Penh, families will receive 120,000 riel, with an additional 52,000 riel per family member for poverty level 1, and 36,000 riel per family member for poverty level 2.
In Kampong Cham, Chreb said that before the global Covid-19 outbreak, she earned $5 per day as a construction worker in Phnom Penh, but was forced to return to her home province after work was halted at the construction site in the capital.
“I am now living as a scavenger,” she said. “For collecting recyclable scrapsI earn 8,000 to 10,000 riel per day.”
She said Prey Tralach Village Chief Pouch Prounh had told her last week that the state would provide her with cash support through a local Wing branch, but he did not give her further details.
“He [Pouch Prounh] said that elderly and disabled people will get 150,000 to 200,000 riel and families like mine that have no old or disabled people will get less than 100,000 riel,” she said.
“I am happy with any amount of assistance from the state, as you have seen my family’s condition,” Chreb said.
“It is very helpful for a poor person. This money will help to support my family while we can’t find work,” she said, adding that she holds a level 2 IDPoor card, which she was issuedby the government on June 17 last year.
In Prey Tralanch, Village Chief Prounh said June 29 that some families in his area in the east of Cambodia have already received assistance because commune councilors have been instructed to disperse funds in eastern provinces first.
He said 14 families in his village will receive the funding soon, and another six families qualify, but will face a longer process as they must first apply to be part of the ID Poor program.
“I think it is a good thing that the government is paying attention and is thinking about people’s livelihoods,” he said.
Trapaing Preah Deputy Commune Chief Mao Longheng said June 29 that authorities have now provided the first round of the government’s financial support to about 100 disadvantaged families among 324 in the commune. Those who have received cash were determined by officials to have been adversely affected by Covid-19, he said.
“We have initiated the program on Friday, and there are about 100 poor families that have received social funding,” he said.
Longheng said that commune councilors had instructed village chiefs to disseminate only to poor families who already have a ID Poor card.
He added that in order to receive the financial support, poor families must register at the commune office, then a social worker will check their ID Poor statusand issue them a code so that they may retrieve their cash from a Wing branch.
“We have only disseminated to families who have an equity card,” he said, adding that authorities do not discriminate against families who want to apply to join the ID Poor program
“Right now I have received new applications from 70 families,” he said. “And we hope to conduct the interviews in July after we finish providing the first round [of social assistance funds].”
He said that in order for a family to join ID Poor, a commune councilor must visit the family’s home, then collect details including their household members, jobs, the property they own, their daily income, and more.
Another villager Len Sim, 58, said this week that village representatives had visited her home on June 28 to tell her not to leave home and to wait for commune councilors to arrive to interview her. So far, no one has come to tell her how to secure the cash support.
“I do not know [how much money I will receive],” she said.
“We have never received any money from the authorities since we got an ID Poor card,” she said, adding, “We are happy that the government will provide money after hearing from members of the village.”
As villagers wait on information, civil society groups have alleged that funds for the program are already being misappropriated.
San Chey, executive director at the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability said that questions have been raised on how poor families are being identified because many have not yet been registered with ID Poor.
“We are asking for a review of the registration conditions and procedures for [disadvantaged] people who have a lack of information, especially people who may be discriminated against because they have a different political preferences,” he said.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Centre for Development and Peace said he supported the government’s bidto help disadvantaged Cambodians, but was concerned with the accuracy of the program.
“The most important thing we want to see is whether it is accurately identifying poor families,” Kim Eng said.
“We have seen this happen with [IDPoor] identifications in the past,” he said. “They were only given to those who are related to the village chiefs or commune councilors.”
“We have asked the government to allow all parties to join in, including civil society groups, to ensure transparency,” he added.
Prime Minister Hun Sen took to social media this week to say that local officials who did not fairly disperse the social funds would be held accountable, while ministry officials insisted that measures had been taken to ensure a transparent process.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, the prime minister said that he would take legal action against any local authorities engaging in nepotism by inaccurately identifying their relatives as poor.
“I am issuing an order to the local authorities, especially for anyone who is directly implementing [the social assistance plan] at the commune level, to pay attention and fulfill your duties correctly and avoid collusion by putting relatives down when they are not really a poor family,” his post read.
“I will take legal action and it will not be tolerated if [we] find any villages and communes taking this improper action,” he added.
Samheng Boros, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said during a press conference on June 25 that the government had been thorough in establishing methods to roll out the cash transfers, and insisted nepotism was not at play.
“We are independently identifying poor families, and the national level working group must review the list of poor families who have applied for the ID Poor program with the local commune officials,” Boros said, adding that the ministry’s working group had the right to object to any decisions made on the local level.
He said that in phase 1 in June, the government had provided social funding to 560,000 families, about 2.3 million people. Any family with a valid equity card that has not received a cash transfer in June will receive funding in the next round, to be dispersed July 25, he said.
Theng Panhathon, general director of the General Department of Planning at the Ministry of Planning, also defended the process of identifying poor families, saying that local and national authorities had been cooperating effectively.
He said on June 25 that the commune working groups selecting families to receive funds are made up of five people who choose which families are the most in-need based on whether they have a home or any relatives to rely on for support. They then send a list to the commune councilor, who will personally interview each family, he explained.
“We have taken all possible measures to avoid any issues,” Panhathong said of the allegations of nepotism.
As an example, he pointed to the government’s decision on May 25 to allow a joint working group from the ministries of Planning and Social Affairs to review the family lists made by local authorities, and added that ID Poor cards are only valid for a three-year period.
According to Chhour Sophanha, director of the Social Affairs Ministry’s social welfare department as of June 25, the government has dispersed 50,000,000,000 million riel, or about $12 million to 300,000 poor families.