Putting a sticking plaster on a turf war? The trouble with Cash Based Assistance Coordination

by 01st Feb 2018
Administering CARE's cash transfer programme in response to Cyclone Enawo in Madagascar, 2017 Administering CARE's cash transfer programme in response to Cyclone Enawo in Madagascar, 2017

Delivering aid as cash is fast becoming recognised as one of the most important ways to help crisis affected citizens and the communities around them. The CaLP and Accenture State of the World’s Cash Report, launched today, will be the first attempt to document just how far cash programming has come in terms of the quantity and quality. It is a critical time to see what the future of humanitarian aid looks like.

And one thing is clear. Whilst consensus is emerging about the importance of moving to a more comprehensive and high quality use of cash assistance, opinions are divided on who should do it and how to coordinate those involved. So perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue of cash coordination features heavily in the report, and no doubt will in the debates that follow. In this blog I explore some of the key questions regarding the coordination of cash – or essentially – how to get people to work together to ensure cash aid is the most effective it can be.

“At global coordination meetings, there is a turf war going on between the three UN agencies on who should ‘own’ cash – this is not helpful.”
– Anonymous, from The State of the World’s Cash Report

Let’s start at the trickiest point – coordination of cash is particularly problematic when we look at Multi-Purpose Cash, i.e. cash assistance which has no restrictions on what people have to use it for. In a world where humanitarian responses are designed and implemented in neat, sector compartmentalised ways, like Food, Shelter or WASH, Multi-Purpose Cash throws a spanner in the works where the cash assistance is likely to be used to meet a variety of needs, across multiple sectors.

This flexibility is in part what makes cash programming stronger; no one gets things they don’t need. But because where the money goes affects who is in charge – it leads to a furious debate over who has responsibility for coordinating cash and how do we measure Multi-Purpose Cash across the humanitarian system. According to The State of the World’s Cash Report, despite endorsement from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Principals of the World Bank’s strategic note on Cash Transfers in Humanitarian Contexts, which calls for the formalisation of cash coordination, the report says that “…over the past two years, little progress is perceived to have been made in this area. Respectively, only 41% and 48% of respondents in the practitioner survey agree that the predictability and quality of cash coordination has increased in the past year.”

According to the report, the lack of a cash coordination mandate in the humanitarian architecture, and subsequent limited resources, leadership and structured engagement with national government counterparts, results in limiting the potential of Multi-Purpose Cash as a tool to deliver effective and efficient humanitarian assistance.

In the absence of progress over formal cash coordination in the humanitarian architecture, some donors have started to try and solve the problem themselves. ECHO, for example, has decided to try to meet its commitments to scale up cash, whilst at the same time, doing so in a manner that it feels supports coordinated delivery of cash. In November 2017, ECHO finalised its guidance on the delivery of large-scale cash transfers. At the heart of the guidance, it asserts that ideally cash should be delivered by a single financial service provider, in partnership with a minimum of three other agencies, whose roles are split according to function (for example, M&E, external evaluation, community engagement). This is a departure from the traditional consortium approach of dividing roles according to geography or sector.

By taking this step unilaterally, however, there is the risk that in the absence of formalised cash coordination systems, this approach by ECHO could create a parallel system that suits ECHO, but leaves the question of a coordinated aid system even more in question. If it does create a more streamlined, coordinated approach, then great! But ECHO is only one humanitarian donor, and whilst it has committed to trying to work with other donors to coordinate on a single approach to cash, unless the root causes of cash coordination issues are formally addressed by the IASC, ECHO’s approach will, at best, be a sticking plaster.

Download The State of the World’s Cash Report: Cash Transfer Programming in Humanitarian Aid from the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) website 

CARE is committed to engaging with whatever structures are in place to best support coordinated cash delivery. In the fiscal year 2017, CARE led 73% of the consortiums we engaged with. In Zimbabwe, CARE co-founded and co-led with WFP the national Cash Working Group. In North-East Syria, CARE is co-leading the Cash Working Group with IRC.

Ciara O'Malley

My role is to support the growth of cash-based programming in CARE, as well as ensuring CARE is continuously enhancing the quality of our cash work. This includes sharing our learning, knowledge and experiences with other humanitarian stakeholders, as well as learning from others.

The humanitarian system has traditionally been grounded in the provision of in-kind aid and services. However, there is a growing body of evidence that shows at times, providing disaster-affected people with cash can be more effective at meeting needs, supporting the recovery of the local economy, more timely and be more cost-efficient. I work with our teams, as well as external stakeholders, to grow that understanding of “why cash” and “when cash”. My specific interests lie in cash operational modalities, coordination, quality cash programming, gender and cash, linking humanitarian cash-based responses with development programmes and social safety nets, how cash can support the strengthening of disaster resilience and market systems.

Previous to joining CARE in January 2017, I worked with HelpAge, Oxfam and Trócaire (Caritas Ireland). I’ve managed or supported the delivery of cash-based responses in a range of humanitarian crises which includes South Sudan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Nepal, Myanmar, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.

Email: omalley@careinternational.org