Don’t bash cash programming if you want overseas aid to create a more resilient world

by 12th Jan 2017
 “With the cash transfer ... my family survived the drought so far," says Concilia Sande in Zimbabwe “With the cash transfer ... my family survived the drought so far," says Concilia Sande in Zimbabwe

Cash programming has been under the cosh from certain sections of the media – so it will be interesting to see the response to the latest report from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, published today (12 January 2017), which gives a strong endorsement to DFID’s cash programmes and how they deliver on poverty reduction.

According to the ICAI report, “DFID’s cash transfer programming offers a strong value for money case, owing to the consistent results on alleviating poverty and vulnerability and its fit with DFID’s ‘leaving no one behind’ commitment.” But these findings are a direct contrast to headlines in UK newspapers last week criticising the use of cash programmes to deliver aid – the latest in a series of articles criticising the UK aid budget and how aid is delivered that will no doubt continue to shape the UK public debate on aid in 2017. Whether it does so in a way that ensures UK aid will be stronger and more effective at the end of it remains to be seen. This blog shares some of CARE’s experience and perspective on the journey from delivering packages of food to cash programming, and some of my own thoughts of where this debate needs to go.

Charity began at home

CARE’s 70-year history started through the delivery of aid packages sent from the USA to the UK and other European countries after World War 2. As the testimonies of some of the original recipients of CARE packages show, charity really did begin at home, and often in the form of food, blankets and other items. Over the decades different emergencies and long-term crises challenged CARE and the humanitarian sector to better meet the needs of affected populations, and a key transformation in the last two decades has been the use of cash programming.

Tailor-made aid

Cash programming is the practice of giving people cash rather than clothes, food or other items. It is a really important approach to aid delivery because it enables aid to be tailor-made to the specific needs of affected people and works through the local economy to provide for those needs. The evidence of its effectiveness is well recognised, and myths that cash programming fuels corruption, is wasteful, or makes people lazy have been widely debunked. Nonetheless, by giving more control to the poor and disaster-affected people themselves, donors are giving away some of their power and ability to choose what they think is right – and it isn’t always a comfortable thing to do.

Working for many years on humanitarian policy I have seen first-hand that the best emergency aid is defined by the needs and priorities of the people and communities affected by the disaster. In the past aid has at times been too defined by what donors want to give, or what we in donor countries think that disaster affected communities need, leading to waste. Many examples of inappropriate aid were documented after the 2004 Asian Tsunami including Viagra, ski jackets and Father Christmas costumes, as well as the usual expired drugs and inappropriate food like tinned pork sent to staunchly Muslim Aceh.

Supporting, not undermining, the local economy

Whilst aid agencies have improved the targeting of aid, bad information or inexperienced well-wishers can still end up supporting the costly shipping of inappropriate food, clothes or household items. At best this aid is an unhelpful waste, but at worst it can undermine the local economy where farmers are still trying to sell crops, shops are trying to sell goods, and manufacturers are trying to produce the items the country needs. Away from a flood or earthquake zone, factories and local businesses may be untouched – if we fly in aid that is given for free we can put local people out of business at a time when their country needs them most. At the same time, some people will have lost everything and need support.

Emergency cash programming has developed to support and use the local economy as part of an emergency response, and thereby help the local communities recover and build back better from the first day of an emergency response. It is a way of distributing the aid provided by the UK public – through charities or through the UK government aid budget directly – to the people affected by the crisis, and enables them to buy whatever they need: food, clothes, nappies, schooling, seeds to plant new crops, etc.

Aid as an enabler and facilitator of local solutions

Cash programming is a powerful example of the reorientation needed by the humanitarian sector that I wrote about in the Christian Aid report Building the Future of Humanitarian Aid. In it I argued that the humanitarian sector must move towards being an enabler and facilitator of local communities’ own disaster management and away from a service delivery operational model. It is a challenge that emerged from a review of the Asian Tsunami in 2004 when the biggest finding called for a “fundamental reorientation from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating communities’ own relief and recovery priorities.” And it is a challenge that was echoed loudly at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 when aid agencies themselves signed a Charter4Change calling for greater recognition and funding to go to local and national humanitarian responders.

Poverty reduction AND resilience

Cash programming is an important approach for emergency response – but let’s be clear, as the ICAI report clearly shows, it is not just a practice that delivers tailored aid in emergencies. Cash programmes are instead increasingly recognised as a key part of social safety nets and poverty reduction strategies the world over. These often support the people most impacted by crises and as such the programmes also play a key role in preventing and responding to emerging crises before they hit. These approaches have evolved to prevent deaths and improve development and emergency response.

Supporting poor and disaster-affected communities to make their own decisions about what they need is at odds with a narrative that tells the UK public we should know best. Such a narrative feels more akin to the paternalistic approach to aid that many practitioners have moved away from after directly learning from the mistakes of the past.

Greater transparency and accountability for aid is a good thing, but don’t stop emergency and development actors from learning from the mistakes of the past; not if you want to see a more resilient and prosperous world.

Katherine Nightingale

After 10+ years working in the development and humanitarian sector I remain passionate about putting disaster and conflict-affected people at the heart of humanitarian response, security and disaster risk governance.

I really enjoy what I do: the creative problem-solving, the people management, the relationship brokering both within and between agencies, government, communities, UN, media, etc. I enjoy the community-engagement and working together to deliver effective programmes on the ground. The true policy wonk within relishes researching technical and political innovations across the sector, and my West Wing side revels in developing and delivering the political strategies for change.

I am inspired by creative arts, continue to be involved in writing and film projects, and am honored to be on the board of Ice & Fire exploring human rights through theatre and performance.


Twitter: @kat_night