Children are the future of any society and giving them the opportunity for a good start to life is essential. The Government of Lao PDR envisions just that, through the Mother and Early Childhood Grant (MECG) – a cash benefit for pregnant women and newborns integrated with antenatal and postnatal care services and support for birth registration. In June 2021, the MECG programme was launched as a pilot as part of the UN Joint Programme on ‘Establishing the basis for Social Protection Floors in Lao PDR’. 700 prospective beneficiaries, i.e., pregnant women in their second and third trimesters and infants up to 6 months of age have been registered, while registrations are in progress to cover at least 700 more women and children. The pilot will run in three districts of the country, namely, Sanamxay and Phouvong (Attapeu province) and Nong (Savannakhet province). It will offer lessons for eventually scaling up the MECG to the rest of the country.
“This is the first time that we have started implementing a social protection programme remotely, including beneficiary registrations and staff training, due to the COVID-19 related restrictions. This makes the MECG programme innovative.” - Beate Dastel, UNICEF Representative in Lao PDR
The programme has incorporated several innovations to adapt to the socioeconomic context of Lao PDR and pandemic related restrictions.
Financial inclusion in Lao PDR is low and few rural dwellers have bank accounts, while banking infrastructure is lacking in rural areas. The MECG cash benefit will be delivered to beneficiaries through a digital payment app, “U-Money”, which only requires a mobile phone number to register. The payment service provider will visit people’s homes and provide cash-to-door services for those few beneficiaries whose phone numbers are not registered. Digital payment mechanisms have been gaining popularity in recent times and the lessons from this experience will contribute to facilitating not only other social welfare payments but also social insurance payments.
The MECG programme uses a multi-stakeholder approach to establish the system and inform rural communities about its benefits. The social protection system in the country is nascent. Before a cash transfer is implemented, the systems and infrastructure need to be put in place. UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare to work with village chiefs, district officials and healthcare workers in the pilot areas. Most of the Lao population lives in rural areas and is unfamiliar with the idea of social protection. This is why one of the pillars of the MECG pilot is Behaviour Change Communication, to introduce changes in perspective and action that will increase the uptake of social protection.
Multi-dimensional poverty in Lao PDR is high, therefore the MECG programme has adopted an integrated approach to tackle this problem. It integrates a cash benefit for pregnant women and newborns with antenatal and postnatal care services and support for birth registration. This integrated approach is designed to ensure that children can access adequate nutrition and healthcare in the first 1000 days of life.
The joint Government-UN effort will help to accelerate progress towards SDG1 (No Poverty), SDG2 (Zero Hunger) and SDG16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions).