How cash transfers are delivered to beneficiaries involves important policy and practical considerations. This blog presents first-hand experience of the manual distribution of Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Programme (locally known as the Mtukula Pakhomo). Recognising the practical demands on government staff capacity explains the move towards experimenting with alternative transfer modalities: namely e-payments. However, this approach also involves pros and cons.
In previous blogs, I explored how implementing cash transfers is a demanding task. This time, I will briefly describe the manual cash transfer process in Malawi, from the perspective of an observer, to provide brief insight into the extent of the task many African government’s grapple with. I then briefly discuss the pros and cons to going digital.
A first hand perspective: Malawi’s manual cash transfer in practice
At 8 am I enter the district office where the staff responsible for distributing the social cash transfer in Malawi is already busy preparing for the day. Every two months, the district staff spend two full weeks distributing the cash in their communities. I am told that we will leave soon, we are just waiting for the accountant to physically collect a backpack of cash from the nearby bank.
It is not until 10:30 am before we get into the European Union-funded 4-wheel drive. Joining me in the car are the driver, two armed security guards, and five government staff. The car is packed. After 45 – 60 minutes, we arrive in the village where the payment takes place.
A crowd has gathered underneath a tree in front of a school. The men and women sit in neatly separated groups. The ‘community social support committee’ had been contacted in advance by the district staff to mobilise the beneficiaries. Contacting these committees can sometimes be difficult as phones are empty or lack network reception. As we get out of the car, chairs and three tables quickly materialise. The distribution of cash can now begin.
Before the payment starts, one district employee reemphasises the programme’s objectives and how the payment works. This pertains to the ‘soft conditionality’ I discussed in a previous blog. Meanwhile, the 3-step transfer process is explained to me:
- Table 1 - Identification: People queue as a staff member compares their picture with the one on their ‘cash transfer passport’. Every beneficiary has a document, with personal information and a barcode that is scanned at a laptop. The system then shows the details of this person and how much money they are eligible to receive. The beneficiaries are informed of the amount, which varies according to their individual situation.
- Table two - Cash transfer: Beneficiaries then move on to table 2, which is manned by another staff member and an accountant. They have a list detailing the amount each beneficiary is entitled to. Staff member 1 counts out the amount from the stack of bills on the table and passes it on to the next staff member who counts the money again. The money is then given to the beneficiary who is told to recount the money (although they don’t always do this). The beneficiary is fingerprinted on the list to prove that they received their money.
- Table three – Feedback and complaints mechanism: With their cash in hand, beneficiaries proceed to table three, which is the ‘case management’ table. Here beneficiaries are fingerprinted in their own payment book. One finger-stamp for each month for which they receive money. At this table they can also raise issues with the district staff, provide updates (such as changes to their household composition, which might affect the amount of money they get), ask questions, etc. If there are any issues/updates, the district staff will need to follow-up on this in the future. Once the beneficiaries are done with this table, the manual cash transfer is complete!
The whole disbursement process at this site takes up to 2.5 hours. Today, the team repeats the cash transfer process at two more villages. In this district there are four teams working simultaneously for ten days to manually distribute the cash every two months. Consequently, it is an incredibly time and resource intensive activity. The staff performing the distribution have other tasks as well, meaning they are not dedicated ‘cash transfer staff’. This substantial workload resulted in these 'manual payments' taking place bi-monthly, as opposed to monthly.
In recognition of the immense pressure this single programme puts on Malawi’s district staff capacity, the Government has embraced ‘e-payment’ cash transfers. This involves any form of non-manual distribution of cash.
Pilot e-payments are being implemented in Malawi. Some involve using mobile phones to deliver cash to beneficiaries. Others work by providing bank accounts and bank cards to beneficiaries, with the banks then bringing cash to communities. An evaluation of e-payments for internal use by Malawian stakeholders noted that these pilots can reduce the total workload, while others shift the staff burden from the public to the private sector. Of course, each approach has multiple advantages and disadvantages depending on the specific context. Some of these are listed below.
Advantages of e-payment:
- It has the potential to be cheaper;
- transfers can be distributed monthly, rather than bi-monthly;
- on the beneficiary side, e-payment removes the requirement to queue and wait on a specific date and time;
- and when cash is in a bank account or mobile phone, people do not need to store large amounts of cash at home or travel with it.
What’s holding digital distribution back?
- The physical infrastructure is underdeveloped (mobile phone/bank coverage, electricity to charge phones, etc.);
- when mobile money is used, agents of the phone company in the communities need to have sufficient cash at hand to accommodate surges in demand;
- beneficiaries need to learn how to deal with mobile transfers, which can be challenging, especially for the elderly who comprise a large share of beneficiaries.
Institutional constraints to e-payment
Malawi’s cash transfer funding structure is highly fragmented. Different donors have different views on how quickly to go digital, though Malawi’s government has embraced the principle of e-payments. The outcomes of pilots are interpreted differently by different donors and what works in one district might not work in another district with a different geography and infrastructure.
Furthermore, five different parties are funding Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer programme, and their priorities differ. Moreover, since donors need to submit their plans to headquarters in advance, it can be difficult to update the payment modality – which all carry different costs -halfway through a funding period.
Delivering cash transfers manually is an incredibly time and resource intensive process. However, people are familiar with the process. In Malawi, the system seems to be relatively able to reach beneficiaries in time, which is critical to the success of the programme. However, the demand among beneficiaries is so high, and the government capacity so constrained, that e-payments are largely considered to be the way forward. Given the resource, infrastructure, beneficiary and institutional requirements, the speed with which to transition to digital is uncertain.
Roeland Hemsteede is a PhD student at the University of Dundee and looks at how power relations at the national and international level affect the design and implementation of cash transfers in Malawi and Lesotho. The views expressed in this blog are his personal views based on ongoing research and do not necessarily represent those of the research team he is a part of (www.cashtransfers-youth.net). Moreover, the nature and limitations in terms of space mean that this blog only expresses broad ideas without the nuance and specificity that is required for a full understanding. It is intended to stimulate discussion rather than a definite and unchangeable argument.