Fast access to cash provides urgent relief to those hardest hit by COVID—19

COVID—19 is wreaking health and economic turmoil worldwide. These impacts are all the more pronounced in low-income or crisis-affected countries, where the economic crisis caused by the pandemic may hit harder than the virus itself. This is the case for Jordan which, in addition to 15.7% of its population living below the poverty line, hosts 650,000 registered refugees who fled the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

Since 2017, UNICEF Jordan has been supporting vulnerable households with  monthly direct cash payments (known as ‘Hajati’). This cash is ‘no strings attached’ but recipients are encouraged to use it to support children’s schooling. Forthcoming UNICEF Innocenti research reveals how Hajati positively impacts children’s lives.

But how can social protection be expanded rapidly to support families made even more vulnerable by a global pandemic? The case of Hajati provides some valuable reflections.

To counter the spread of the virus, the government of Jordan declared a state of emergency, implementing a stringent lockdown and deploying the army to enforce a strict curfew. While these containment measures slow the spread of COVID—19, many already vulnerable people have suddenly found themselves without an income.

UNICEF Jordan quickly started working with the government and other partners to offset the impact of the lockdown for children. New vulnerable households were added to the Hajati cash transfer programme. This expansion provides urgent support to households that cannot count on savings to cope with the shock.

Saleh, the eldest sibling of eight children, is 13 years old and in 8th grade at a UNICEF-supported double-shifted school in Wadi al-Sier. He is considering going back to work as, even with the Hajati support, the family continues to struggle with high living costs and rent.

Following the closure of all schools on 15th March, UNICEF Jordan is helping to provide distance learning to children, fulfilling Hajati’s primary aim of supporting children’s education. Using TV and online platforms, as well as providing information on age-appropriate lessons through Hajati communication networks, UNICEF Jordan continues to support the most vulnerable children during this particularly challenging period.

 

Four factors to get cash to those who need it, fast

Time was of the essence as the lockdown immediately impacted people’s livelihoods and included an imminent bank closure. In just two weeks, UNICEF Jordan scaled up Hajati to include 18,000 additional vulnerable children. Four factors made this possible:

1. Comprehensive data on potential recipients

UNICEF Jordan maintains a database with information on 38,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable households. This was used to rapidly identify households not receiving Hajati but who were in urgent need of financial support.

2. Efficient and safe payment systems

UNICEF Jordan leveraged existing systems to transfer funds. Under a partnership with 26 humanitarian organizations (Common Cash Facility), households registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) can quickly and safely access Hajati cash using an iris scan. Furthermore, by coordinating with other cash providers, payment dates are staggered to avoid overcrowding and to reduce the potential transmission of the virus at ATMs.

3. Direct communication with recipients

UNICEF Jordan has three channels to communicate with beneficiaries: SMS for one-way communication; RapidPro for two-way SMS communication at no cost to beneficiaries; and a helpline for direct communication. These allow UNICEF to quickly update people about Hajati and inform them of basic safety measures to avoid contracting the virus while collecting the cash.

4. Readily available funds

Bolstered by research (forthcoming) on the positive impacts of Hajati for children, UNICEF Jordan had already secured funding for the programme through to December 2020. This financial buffer allowed UNICEF to scale-up its cash response rapidly, without immediate fundraising.

Despite this recent expansion, even more children could benefit from Hajati. If sufficient funds are raised, 50,000 more children could quickly be included, in addition to the 18,000 now benefiting from the recent scale-up. To achieve this, UNICEF Jordan has issued a funding appeal.

 

Jacobus de Hoop is manager of humanitarian policy research at UNICEF Innocenti. Luisa Natali is a Social Policy Specialist at the UNICEF Innocenti. Alexis Boncenne is Programme Officer in UNICEF Jordan’s Social Protection section. Angie Lee is a Communications Specialist with UNICEF Innocenti.

Discover more about UNICEF Innocenti’s research on Social Protection and Cash Transfers, as well as work on Social Protection in Humanitarian SettingsReaders interested in more detailed discussion of shock-responsive social protection can read a literature review by Oxford Policy Management (2017). Those interested in UNICEF’s approach to shock-responsive social protection and humanitarian cash transfers can find out more here and here.

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