Indonesia’s largest cash transfer program pivoted quickly in response to Covid-19. Can beneficiaries keep up?

October 7, 2020

By Sophie Theis, Victoria Johnson, Rahmi Yunaningsih, and Elwyn Panggabean

Indonesia’s Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA) was uniquely positioned to rapidly modify its conditional cash transfer program in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. As government-to-person (G2P) payment programs around the world adjust to accommodate the reality of the pandemic, Women’s World Banking research underscores the importance of ensuring beneficiaries understand program changes in a time when their livelihoods depend on G2P payments more than ever. This is a key moment in the pandemic to build beneficiaries capabilities to use G2P payments for their short-term coping and long-term recovery and resilience.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least 200 countries and territories have initiated or modified 1,055 social protection programs to help more than a billion vulnerable people cope with unprecedented economic and health crises.

While many programs around the world struggled to deploy emergency aid to the right beneficiaries, Indonesia’s main G2P programs were uniquely positioned to respond swiftly. In April 2020, the Government of Indonesia announced it was directing an additional IDR 110 trillion (over US$7 billion) towards social safety net programming, and MoSA announced that the conditional cash transfer, Program Keluarga Harapan (PKH), would disburse an additional IDR 8.3 trillion (about US$558 million) and make the following changes[1]:

  • Increase annual disbursement by 25 percent per beneficiary
  • Shift the disbursement frequency from quarterly to monthly disbursements
  • Expand the program from 9.2 million to 10 million beneficiaries

MoSA was prepared to shift PKH’s disbursement cadence, payment amount, and scale in the span of a month in large part because PKH beneficiaries were already receiving G2P payments directly to their bank accounts. Starting in 2017 MoSA had opened Basic Savings Accounts (BSAs) for all beneficiaries of PKH as well as Bantuan Pangan Non-Tunai (BPNT), the non-cash food assistance program. Most of the 800,000 people added to PKH were quickly onboarded because they were already part of BPNT and held BSAs as well.

PKH’s digitization certainly facilitated its nimble response to the pandemic. Yet the program’s rapid changes may be outpacing its ability to keep beneficiaries informed. When the pandemic hit, MoSA provided guidance on how PKH would adjust to the outbreak, including information about the new timing of the payment, disbursement amount and procedures, and Covid-19 protective measures to facilitate safe withdrawals. The socialization of this new scheme aimed to comply with Covid-19 protocols by leveraging online platforms, traditional media, and social media.

As part of the implementation, PKH paused the Family Development Sessions (FDS), monthly in-person meetings between PKH facilitators and groups of PKH beneficiaries. This move effectively cut off beneficiaries’ main channel for information about PKH, as facilitators are beneficiaries’ primary touchpoint for asking questions, resolving problems, and learning about program terms and conditions. PKH facilitators instead created WhatsApp groups with beneficiary group leaders to convey the information, with the group leaders tasked with disseminating this information to their peers. However, such communication avenues were not as effective as FDS, and MoSA later reinstated the FDS in select areas to support communication efforts, albeit on a smaller scale.[2]

Just before the pandemic, Women’s World Banking had completed research that documented beneficiaries’ low awareness of key features of PKH and their BSAs. With the rapid changes to the program, combined with the loss of direct communication with their facilitator, would beneficiaries fully understand how they could use this critical financial aid to support their households in this time?

To explore this question, Women’s World Banking conducted its first remote research during the pandemic with 44 beneficiaries, PKH facilitators, and bank agents across 11 districts of Indonesia in May 2020.

The research revealed that further efforts are needed to ensure beneficiaries have critical information about the program to support their financial planning and security.

The following represent seven key areas where beneficiaries need further clarity on changes to PKH:

  1. Beneficiaries do not know where they can go for information about changes to PKH under Covid.

In the absence of FDS, facilitators primarily communicate with beneficiaries through the leader of their beneficiary group, but there is information and nuance lost in translation, and beneficiaries are unable to directly ask questions of their facilitator as they did in the past.

WhatsApp groups are not able to include all beneficiaries, as earlier Women’s World Banking research revealed that only 10 percent of respondents own smartphones. In addition, those who do have smartphones may not be active users, given connectivity challenges and high data costs.

Beneficiaries lament the loss of direct communication with the facilitator. One described, “…It is such a hassle, where should we hold a gathering, who will be the facilitator? We are lost.”


  1. Beneficiaries do not all understand that their benefit amount has increased.

Many beneficiaries do not understand that they are receiving an annual 25 percent increase[1] to their benefit. Among those interviewed, most thought their payment had remained the same or even decreased.

With their quarterly benefit now divided into monthly payments, it is easy for people with low numeracy to conclude that the disbursement amount has been reduced. One beneficiary in the greater Jakarta metropolitan area believed that her benefit payout was lower because of her failure to comply with the pre-pandemic condition of school attendance. As she explained, “When my children still went to school, the amount was bigger, Ma’am, it is not bad, 300 thousand, Miss. But now, my children do not go to school, so the amount is reduced…I only get 100 thousand.”

Those who believe the benefit to be lower are distressed about this change. One beneficiary in Maluku shared, “With the coronavirus pandemic going on…please do inform us so that we wouldn’t have to wonder why the aid is being reduced. For example, there was an income of 200,000. However, the next month, it suddenly became Rp. 100,000. Sometimes, the beneficiaries don’t understand this.”


  1. Beneficiaries are confused about why people are receiving different levels of social assistance.

 While PKH was adjusting to the pandemic, central and local government programs extended additional cash assistance programs for those not already receiving PKH. In some cases, these payments are substantially higher than the monthly PKH payment, and PKH beneficiaries are confused why their benefit was not comparably increased. For example, PKH beneficiaries with a child in elementary school or junior high receive $5 or $10 per month respectively, while beneficiaries eligible for Direct Cash Assistance (BLT Dana Desa) received about $40 per month from April to June.[2]

If the PKH payment is now meant as emergency assistance, beneficiaries wonder why the amount they receive is still tied to the number of children they have that were attending school, rather than their total number of dependents. As one beneficiary put it, “Please have pity on us, the poor…Because, like me, a single parent…[the] school fee is not enough.”

  1. Beneficiaries are not clear on when the monthly payments will return to quarterly payments, or when in the month disbursement will happen.

Beneficiaries are uncertain for how long the payments will be made on a monthly, rather than quarterly, basis. Regarding monthly disbursements, one beneficiary from Lampung stated, “I don’t know. I heard it was until December, but I don’t really know.” Another beneficiary in Jabodetabek believed monthly disbursements will last through the pandemic: “When the pandemic is over, it will be back to quarterly for further disbursements.”

Additionally, beneficiaries continue to lack information about when in the month to expect the disbursement, which complicates their financial planning. Because there is no anticipated date of disbursement, beneficiaries usually hear about disbursement once someone has successfully withdrawn money. There is no mechanism for providing advanced notice of the payment. As a beneficiary from Lampung put it, “No one ever told me about that [when disbursement will happen]. I usually hear from my friend like ‘the money is out’ then that’s how I know.” When finances are extremely tight, it is more important than ever to know when economic relief will be available.

  1. Beneficiaries are uncertain whether conditions are still required and how the cash assistance can be used.

Before Covid-19, PKH mandated children’s school attendance and compliance with certain health requirements as a condition for receiving aid, but since the pandemic, it is ambiguous whether conditions are still required.

During the outbreak, PKH facilitators have been encouraged to work from home as much as possible, and as a result they have largely paused the verification process, assuming all beneficiaries are in compliance with the conditions (pemutihan or write-off).

Yet with many schools closed and some risk inherent in visiting health services, beneficiaries do not know if or how they should continue to meet these program conditions. They also do not have information about when the conditions may be reinstated to ensure they take the requisite steps to remain eligible for PKH.

Similarly, before the pandemic, facilitators used to encourage beneficiaries to spend their PKH payment on their children’s health and education-related expenses. Now, struggling with severe loss of income and employment, beneficiaries need the aid for basic sustenance. As one beneficiary in Maluku explained, “Usually, when [my husband] was still working we usually split the electricity bill. But now I have to use the money from PKH.”


Most beneficiaries believe it is permissible to spend aid on basic needs given the crisis, but there is a lingering concern that children’s school expenses should have priority, and that this could affect their PKH eligibility. Some beneficiaries stress that they only spend aid on basic needs, like food and electricity, after they pay for their children’s school-related expenses and medical fees. One beneficiary from West Java emphasized that the aid “will be for buying shoes and books. That is all…that 300 thousand is strictly for the children’s needs for returning to school.” One beneficiary from Central Java noted, “The facilitators still instruct us to utilize [the aid] to pay for education and medical costs,” even though schools had closed.

The policy is ambiguous for facilitators as well. One facilitator reflected, “When it comes to advice, I haven’t done it [told beneficiaries how to spend the money] because what I’m thinking is with the pandemic, I’m just going to let the beneficiaries use the money as best they can, so that they can provide for their families.”

  1. Beneficiaries remain uncertain whether they can leave money in their account.

As the first phase of research found, many beneficiaries are concerned that money not immediately withdrawn from their accounts could be reclaimed by the bank or even compromise their eligibility for PKH. This belief persists in the Covid era. One beneficiary from Jabodetabek never left money in her account, stating, “I’m afraid the money will disappear from my account.” Another from Lampung explained, “Once I spared some money…for the balance but when I was going to take it, my account was empty…so now I never save.”

The new monthly disbursement schedule presents a dilemma to beneficiaries, as travel to an ATM or agent can be costly—especially in remote areas. In response, many beneficiaries initially organized workarounds, nominating one beneficiary to withdraw cash on behalf of their group. This contradicted PKH disbursement policies, so MoSA issued a reminder that beneficiaries should still conduct their own transactions and keep their card in their own possession to avoid fraud.

Because most beneficiaries are unaware that it is safe to leave money on their accounts, many beneficiaries believe they must travel every month to collect their payment, even when the cost of travel is close to the payment amount. Beneficiaries should know they have the option to cash out the payment whenever it is safe and convenient for them to do so.

  1. Some beneficiaries continue to believe they cannot withdraw their full benefit.

At the same time, as Women’s World Banking’s previous research found, some beneficiaries think that their BSA has a minimum balance requirement—a view that is also commonly held by PKH facilitators and bank agents who reinforce this misconception. As one agent from NTB stated, “[Beneficiaries] are afraid that their account will be deactivated. As a matter of fact, beneficiaries are inclined to withdraw all the money. So, we recommend them to leave Rp. 5,000.” As a result, some beneficiaries leave up to a quarter of their PKH payment out of fear of account closure and are thus unable to access their full entitlement.

A related challenge is that with a minimum monthly payment of IDR 75,000 per month (a little more than $5), ATM bill denominations are not always small enough to give beneficiaries their full payment, but not all beneficiaries are aware they can go to an agent to withdraw their payment.

Reimagining client-centered cash assistance in the Covid era 

PKH and other G2P programs pivoting to provide emergency assistance have responded well to Covid-19. But with no end in sight to the pandemic, it is an important moment to ensure that these programs effectively communicate program changes to their clients. Clarity about program changes is essential for beneficiaries’ financial planning in a highly stressful time, especially as G2P payments become a primary source of sustenance to these families. Adequate communication about G2P is also an important investment in social cohesion.[1]

In Indonesia, PKH needs to provide additional information beyond payment amount and schedule to ensure beneficiaries are able to make informed, confident decisions about the use of their benefit and understand the range of options available to them. As PKH considers scaling up to 15 million beneficiaries, PKH should focus on ensuring clarity and understanding among beneficiaries, PKH facilitators, and agents on the following points:

  1. Duration of increased aid: To manage household finances, beneficiaries need to understand that their annual aid amount has increased and for how long this increase will last.
  2. Guidance on the use of the payment: Beneficiaries should understand and feel confident that they are allowed to use their benefit however necessary during these difficult times. Related to this, the program should explain why they are receiving this payment and the shift in program goals.
  3. Conditionality: Beneficiaries need information about when the programs’ conditions will be reinstated to feel confident they will remain in the program.
  4. Timing of payment: To support financial planning and minimize travel costs, beneficiaries need to know for how long disbursements will be made on a monthly basis and when in the month the disbursement is scheduled. Agents also need this information to manage increased disbursement frequency while complying with social distancing guidelines.
  5. Use of bank accounts: Beneficiaries should feel confident leaving their money in the account if they cannot travel to withdraw funds every month. In addition, they should know they have the option to send and receive money through their PKH accounts, allowing them to tap into their social networks for resilience.
  6. No minimum balance: Beneficiaries, agents, and facilitators must understand beneficiaries can withdraw their full payment with no minimum balance requirement on the account. Beneficiaries need to know they can access PKH through agents.

MoSA will also need to design channels of communication that are effective and inclusive to convey these messages. Apart from beneficiary WhatsApp groups and reinitiating socially distanced gatherings, MoSA may consider leveraging designated G2P agents and ATMs, where beneficiaries go monthly to collect their payment, as PKH information hubs.

PKH and other cash assistance programs around the world have effectively deployed emergency assistance in a time of crisis, keeping a significant portion of the population from sliding into poverty. For many, PKH is a lifeline. However, in this time of great stress and economic precarity, social assistance programs like PKH need to recognize that clients require clarity for their financial planning and security. PKH can be a critical financial tool for resilience if it centers beneficiaries’ needs and meaningfully invests in ensuring they are fully informed about changes to a program on which their livelihoods depend.


Thank you to the rest of the team—Hamidah Mantiri, Flora Aninditya, Indraini Hapsari, and Fitri Ayunisa—for their essential contributions to the research, to Sonja Kelly and Angela Ang for providing comments on the blog, and to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their support of this research.




[1]More recently, the Government of Indonesia introduced the Rice Social Assistance Program (Bansos Beras) for all PKH beneficiaries, August-October 2020, with each beneficiary receiving 15 kg/month. Another program offered to PKH beneficiaries who have graduated from PKH is a working capital loan (IDR 500,000 is offered to 10,000 beneficiaries and IDR 3.5 million to 1,000 beneficiaries).

[2]As of July 2020, FDS started to resume in several locations such as Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Depok, requiring strict Covid-safety protocols in order to reopen lines of communication between facilitators and beneficiaries.

[3] The additional 25% was translated into one quarterly disbursement in Q2 in the form of a double disbursement, which then shifted into monthly disbursements in April through June.  Q3 and Q4 will continue as monthly disbursements through December, 2020.

[4] BLT Dana Desa is a temporary unconditional cash transfer program launched in response to the pandemic that is nationally available for low-income households not receiving PKH or BPNT. It redistributes Dana Desa (the Village Fund) to beneficiaries, providing IDR 600,000 per beneficiary April-June and IDR 300,000 July-December. BST (Bantuan Sosial Tunai) is an additional unconditional cash transfer in response to Covid, disbursing IDR 500,000 for 9 million people who do not receive PKH or BPNT.

[5] Prior research on a cash transfer in 2006 in Indonesia holds a warning about how inadequate communication around program targeting can lead to conflict.