Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lifting up voices from the ground to improve services for children

Giang Thi Cau’s family shared their feedback on a cash transfer scheme
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2012/Sandra Bisin
Eight year-old Giang Thi Cau is proud to perform a traditional dance for her peers at the end of the school day. She belongs to the Mong group, one of the main ethnic groups in Dien Bien province, in northern Viet Nam, which comprises a total of 19 ethnic groups, each with its own distinct language, culture and customs. Cau’s school is located in a scenic but remote valley of Dien Bien, surrounded by spectacular mountain peaks.

“I feel proud Cau is now with us as a full-time student. Before, many girls did not go to school as parents kept them at home to take care of their siblings and attend to the cattle. Cau was one of them. Our teachers had to visit families to convince them to send their girls to school”, Mrs. Tran Thi Hien, head-master of the school, explains.

“Before, I lived in another house, far away from school. Every morning I had to leave the house with my cousin at around 6.30 am and we reached school at around 8 am. I was tired, my legs hurt. Sometimes, I decided not to go to school because it was too far. My parents did not say anything”, Cau recalls.

Dien Bien, located in the mountainous Northwest region of Viet Nam, is one of the poorest provinces in Viet Nam. One of the key reasons for this is the fact that despite increased investments, the quality of education and investments in it remain poor, with challenges in translating these investments into improved outcomes. only 89 out of 100 primary school-aged children in the province are in primary school, while the national average is 95 out of 100, with girls a lot more disadvantaged than boys, when it comes to school-going.

When Cau returns home after school, her father and three siblings are preparing dinner as Cau’s mother is still working in the rice fields. Cau’s family is one of 300 families in Dien Bien province that, in December 2011 and January 2012, shared their feedback with an team of interviewers on a cash transfer scheme set up by the government in 2007 and aimed at ensuring children from poor, ethnic minority families did not drop out of school. Through this scheme, in  Huoi Leng’s  primary school, parents of 250 out of a total of 405 students received a monthly allowance of 140,000 Dong (7 USD).

From improved quantity to improved quality of social services – the role of the Social Audit Approach

In order to support national and provincial-level policymakers to better measure the impact of the cash transfer scheme – also called D112 programme - on the lives of its beneficiaries, UNICEF Viet Nam has been working to promote the use of the Social Audit Approach that can provide information on the quality of social services and spending, with a focus on generating this information through citizen feedback.  One of the tools under this approach, the Public Expenditure Tracking Survey (PETS), was used to assess the effectiveness of the D112 programme in two districts in Dien Bien.

The PETS is a tool aimed at monitoring how much of state resources reach intended target groups. In Dien Bien, it was designed to capture the perceptions and opinions of families on the quality and relevance of services they are entitled, also getting feedback from representatives from school and provincial authorities themselves on challenges and opportunities faced as they delivered these services.

“The key challenge we mentioned as we were interviewed were the complicated procedures to show eligibility to receive cash, as most of us live in remote areas and we had to travel –sometimes for long hours - to the nearest urban centre to get copies of various certificates”, explains Cau’s father, 33 year-old Giang A Linh.

Giang Thi Cau and family at home in Huoi Leng commune, Dien Bien province
© UNICEF Viet Nam/2012/Sandra Bisin

The feedback from families such as Cau’s demonstrates how the opportunity to interact with the state to provide inputs into the functioning of programmes – such as cash transfers – is highly valued.

“It is the first time we had a chance to share our thoughts on a government programme. I was very glad to be given that opportunity. For instance, I feel it should benefit more families as I see that a lot of neighbours who did not qualify to benefit from the scheme are really struggling to send their children to school”, Linh continues. “It is a good thing to ask beneficiaries what they think of services they receive. It is good for the government, for the people themselves and especially for our children. It should be done for other services.”

Leveraging citizens’ feedback to inform policy making

“This is the first time such a mechanism is in place to capture in-depth opinions from the ground on programme implementation. We never have much chance to talk to beneficiaries on the ground”, says Mrs. Phan Thi Hoa, Deputy Director of Dien Bien’s Department of Planning and Investment, which coordinated implementation of the cash transfer scheme, together with UNICEF. “This survey really allows us to listen to voices from the field. We will soon get to know what are the benefits, but also the disadvantages of the scheme, so we can build on the feedback we receive and make adjustments in the future.”

“Policy makers are very passionate and committed to listening to voices from the ground, even at the provincial level. They just lacked the right tools that allowed them to do this in a rigorous manner before”, Samman J. Thapa, UNICEF Viet Nam Social Policy Specialist, explains. “Social Audit tools such as the Public Expenditure Tracking Survey provides them with a scientific set of methods to accurately capture information on what people feel about the services they are entitled to: this is what is so unique about this approach. The objective is to generate information that will improve the government’s decision-making and not only point at bottlenecks”.

Over the past two decades, Viet Nam has achieved impressive economic growth and also made steady progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. However, achieving equitable outcomes for children is not only about formulating policy goals, plans and strategies but just as much about the process of implementing these. Enhanced participation in formulating and assessing key policies and programmes, and increased effectiveness of service delivery in reaching the most marginalized are crucial. With the PETS and the Social Audit Approach, UNICEF aims to support the government of Viet Nam to reach these goals, and to achieve child rights with equity.

By Sandra Bisin 

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