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Cash for Coffins? What happened when Oxfam gave poor Vietnamese a lump sum

April 16, 2009
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I’ve just been reading the latest evaluation of an Oxfam project I’ve started to call ‘cash for coffins’ in Viet Nam. From mid-2006 Oxfam GB directly disbursed non-emergency cash grants to 550 poor and near poor households in An Loc commune, a poor rice-growing community on the Central coast of Viet Nam. Not only is this one-off cash transfer (aka ‘just give them the money’) pilot project unique to Vietnam but it is also distinctive given its establishment outside of an emergency situation and with only minimum conditions (no alcohol, gambling or drugs) placed upon how people spent the money. (I’ve previously blogged on cash transfers in emergencies here.)

How were the families chosen? This is the tricky part. Beneficiaries were selected in a participatory manner by a group of village representatives which included the village head, a mass organisation representative member and a villager. This group qualitatively ranked households one by one, using the criteria ‘poor’, ‘near-poor’/’average’ or ‘better-off’. From a total of 846 households in the Commune’s eight villages, 550 were selected. The list was deliberated over in a village meeting, and villagers were able to comment and in some cases information was verified via an investigation.

What happened? Initial reviews 6 months, a year and 18 months after the money was handed out found: 

  • Improvements in peoples food security had occurred, particularly given that the cash transfer came at a time of food insecurity for the poorest households
  • Drop out rates at schools had declined
  • Concerns over the occurrence of conflict during beneficiary selection and the impacts on community solidarity

Here’s some more detail from the evaluations:

  • The sudden injection of VND6.5 million to 422 households (the rest got about half that much as they weren’t so poor) that have an average monthly per capita income of VND179,834 is significant. To one person the amount given represented three years’ wages in one transaction. The money made significant impacts on people’s lives, reducing the number of poor households whilst boosting their productive assets – many invested in cows.
  • Impressive results recorded include improved community infrastructure, new opportunities for the youth and unemployed, increased community/social activities, increased female participation, improved respect for the law and general improvements in people’s state of mind in regards to a reduction in the stress and worry they experienced.
  • Prior to the project’s involvement, the poverty rate was falling at 5% a year. Following the injection of cash transfers it witnessed a 20% decrease, from 65.1% in 2006 to a 2008 rate of 40.2%. The commune committee attributed this decrease directly to the cash transfers.
  • Women’s involvement in the project, through the countersigning of all cash withdrawals, had a significant impact on gender equity. The investment choices made meant that women reported fewer financial worries and stress, giving them time to participate in different areas of community life, such as community meetings, village sports and cultural activities. This in turn led to increased confidence in interacting with others, speaking out and raising their opinions, particularly in village level meetings. This was all facilitated by the building of a community house, providing a new space for participation. Women reported that men’s responsibility towards the household had improved due to improved economic stability – “Men only drink one glass of rice wine instead of two now!” said one woman.

And why ‘cash for coffins’? Investments into coffins and family tombs were recorded by a number of beneficiaries. Coffins were seen as a particularly important investment by older people. Interviews showed that larger families placed great value on investing into the upkeep of the family tomb. Spirituality clearly plays a major role in the lives of people in An Loc and the expenditure reflects this. Although this was not the target of the project, i.e. it is not a productive asset, there is an inextricable link between people’s spirituality and their physiological well-being that cannot be discounted and should be considered a positive unexpected outcome. In the eyes of beneficiaries this has long term significance in their lives and was mentioned on numerous occasions during the field work.

It wasn’t all plain sailing: despite the openness of the selection process, there were tensions between those who received the grants and those who did not. If we’d had the money, it might have been better to make the grant universal in An Loc to avoid this problem. 

Overall, the experiment suggests that unconditional cash transfers can be a good way to support and empower poor people, even outside of emergencies. If you want to see the full evaluation, please email me.


  1. Hi Duncan
    What an inspiring story. It just goes to show what happens when you empower people and release them from the pressures of poverty. They will not only improve their own condition but that of others.
    I follow your blog and wish everyone could read it.
    Hope you don’t mind me sharing this story with as many people as I can.
    Angela Lovell.

  2. Very interesting results. I wonder if there is any information on loans/credits people already had.I suspect there was an existing debt in most families outside the official credit that they might have accessed.

  3. Mr. Green,

    Anthropologists have similarly argued that investment in burial and other religious ceremonies are important to maintain social networks, as people use the occasion to donate/receive donation and interact with long-lost relatives. I would love to receive a copy of the evaluation to forward to a professor of mine who discussed this in class, but I’m not sure I found your e-mail address on this page. Thank you!

  4. Duncan,

    I totally support cash transfers whatever people do with it. I am not talking about bank’s micro finance but the money given for free.

    Can you believe it even gives men peace enough to help at home.

    Sounds great,


  5. Hello,

    Very interesting indeed. However it would be interesting to compare with what would have happened (in terms of longer-term poverty reduction, gender equality, asset increase, etc.) if the same amount had been used in another way, such as revolving loans or community-managed projects / funds.

    Not that I am criticizing cash transfers at all! But then the aim is to have a maximum impact for a given amount, isn’t it?

    I would also love to receive a copy of the evaluation.


  6. Thanks for this blog Duncan. of course it seems to me now the only responsible thing for Oxfam to do would be a massive scaling up of the approach, with an accompanying policy advocacy effort around targeting social protection and welfare payments in developing countries. If distributing cash can accelerate poverty reduction from 5% pa to 20%, shouldn’t this change the core organizational strategy of Oxfam?

  7. An interesting article but I think we need to bear in mind that this approach will have positive effects in time that it takes an NGO to do an evaluation (i.e. of course there’s going to be a decrease in poverty-related statistics initially) .I agree with Remi, surely there are other models for spending Development money more effectively, such that there are long- AND short- term benefits. I’m interested to learn how this approach guards against dependency… What happens when Oxfam can’t give more money in 5 years time?… Have the local people in An Loc learned business principles, developed a sense of ownership, been shown dignity by being able to reciprocate in some way (this isn’t emergency relief after all) or have they just spent well-meaning Westerners’ donations having a bit of a party? (Good for them I suppose!). Is this really ‘empowerment’ or cruelly raising expectations of an unsustainable lifestyles? Any thoughts?!

  8. PF, I received a one off cash payment when my father died. I didn’t learn business principles, develop a sense of ownership or show dignity by being able to reciprocate in some way. However it did enable me to put a deposit on a flat, something that otherwise was completely out of my reach. I don’t think I have cruelly raised expectations of an unsustainable lifestyle and I’m certainly not dependent on my father… but maybe I need to be evaluated?

  9. Duncan, thanks for this interesting analysis. If it’s still possible, I’d like to receive a copy of the entire report. Thank you.

    Duncan: On its way, Jim!

  10. I love this post. Thank you for returning to it this week. Is it still possible to get the full analysis?

    As donors start to flood into Myanmar, this is just the kind of approach they should take! Ofcourse, there would be a dearth of jobs for the likes of us if they did – and that would be no bad thing either.

    As in Vietnam, the aid community does not appreciate the skills and coping strategies developed under years of heavy handed state-control. Once the lid is off, those skills = effective use of any extra resources and clever choices taken for family and community advancement (let’s not say the d word).

    Many thanks,

  11. This is interesting and it certainly sounds like Oxfam gained some really useful learning from the project. Unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) do raise a number of questions for charitable giving though. If used as part of a toolkit of approaches by organisations like Oxfam then I am supportive. But with donors increasingly looking for organisations which offer the lowest overhead costs is there a danger that UCTs are going to crowd out more strategic preventative and transformative solutions?

    For more discussion on this issue please visit CAFs Future World Giving blog http://futureworldgiving.org/2013/08/27/the-rise-of-direct-giving-in-development-philanthropy/

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