Can Cash Transfers to Digital Wallets Be a Lifeline During the Pandemic?
Designing a digital cash transfer process
In the first round of transfers, BRAC distributed cash to 100,000 households suffering from acute food shortages. Each household, with an average of four members, received $18 for two weeks of food. At the same time, BRAC’s microfinance program continued to return savings to clients on an emergency basis for those who needed instant cash due to the sudden countrywide lockdown. However, getting cash into people’s hands proved to be a challenge, due to lockdowns in certain areas as well as the need to maintain social distancing while managing crowds.
To address these challenges, our digital cluster team designed a rapid disbursement process and immediately started sending transfers to BRAC participants’ digital wallets. The process proved to be an efficient and effective way to reach low-income households almost immediately. We successfully disbursed cash transfers and returned savings digitally to more than half a million households.
Evaluating the experience
To assess the effectiveness of our digital cash transfer initiative, we conducted a mixed-methods survey in July 2020, which included phone interviews with 1,634 female participants. Our interviewees, all of whom had received the cash transfers through digital wallets, had the following profile:
- 51 percent from urban areas, 49 percent from rural areas.
- Average age of 33.
- Just over five years of education on average.
- Primary income source was from daily wage earners, with only 22 percent involved in small businesses.
- In 23 percent of the households, women were directly involved in income-generating activities, contributing 35 percent of the household income through small businesses, salaried jobs or daily wage earners.
The key insights from our survey were the following:
Phone and mobile wallet ownership and usage: The survey revealed that 77 percent of the participants had their own phones, and among those who had phones, 76 percent had mobile wallets. Those who did not have phones or mobile wallets used family members’ wallets to receive the cash transfers.
The emergency digital cash transfer initiative prompted 37 percent of the participants to open digital wallets for the first time during the pandemic. Only 24 percent of the participants said they knew how to use mobile money, and used it mainly for mobile recharge, cash-in, and cash-out purposes, but not for most financial transactions.
Need for support during the cash-out process: Once participants received funds in their wallets, they had to go to a nearby agent to receive the cash funds, or “cash out.” 41 percent of participants went to the agents themselves to cash out, while 59 percent relied on their husbands’ or other family members’ support to cash out. The reasons stated by participants for not going to agents themselves were:
- 48 percent did not want to go out due to COVID-19.
- 27 percent thought they would have to share their PIN with the agent.
- 6 percent had physical disabilities.
- 6 percent did not want to bear the transport cost.
- 3 percent did not have any nearby agents.
Experience with agents during cash-out: About 99 percent of the participants had a satisfactory experience with agents while cashing out and the average travel time to reach an agent was only 14 minutes. These positive results were due to a Central Bank directive issued in April 2020, which recognized digital wallets as a key transaction medium during the pandemic and stated that agents should keep their shops open and serve the population.
Usage of cash transfers: Similar to other experiences with electronic transfers in humanitarian responses, our survey found that 98 percent of participants cashed out the entire fund at once upon receiving their digital cash transfers. The participants revealed that they used the fund for multiple purposes, but mostly for food consumption.
The overall feedback for this initiative was positive, as 89 percent of the participants were content to receive the cash transfers through digital wallets. Through this experience, we have seen that even people who are technology resistant can be brought into the digital ecosystem and start adopting new technology when they feel that the service truly benefits them.In order to keep up this momentum, we must continue to provide incentives for our clients to open digital wallets and use them actively. It is our responsibility to provide financial education and consumer protection to make our clients aware of the risks involved in digital finance and help them to avoid those risks.
We hope to continue innovating with new initiatives that put our clients first and better equip them to access financial services by integrating them into the digital ecosystem.