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Cash and IT: keys to infinite possibilities

Cash and IT are hot topics in most places these days, but the conversation can be either invigorating or stale. Together they can inspire change in how aid is imagined, delivered and managed, while significantly increasing the impact, choice and engagement of disaster affected communities. Alternatively, they can simply be more of the same.

I’m a firm believer that a person holding the duo portfolios of cash and IT within an aid agency holds the keys to infinite change possibilities, which could revolutionise the way their aid agency views aid and how it operates. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they should be held accountable if they don’t enact significant change. However, the world of aid has become completely governed by risk, unimaginative, and a bit bland thinking.

Let’s think about cash for a minute. Through the work of some ‘pioneers’, cash is an acceptable form of aid today. Its acceptability tends to sit within tight boundaries – cash for work, cash vouchers, conditional cash grants, and unconditional cash grants (although as some colleagues pointed out, it’s likely impossible to truly have unconditional cash grants, but perhaps that’s just semantics). Cash has become a ‘sector’ and at times a ‘cross-cutting theme’ to be mainstreamed, although this is rare. It is seen as one more option in our arsenal of options to provide aid. It has not yet fundamentally shifted our operations and approach.

Frustratingly, this is similar with IT. While mobile access and use has exploded globally and computing exponentially grows each year, most aid agencies still view their IT department as a hardware and troubleshooting department, not a strategic actor. Frankly, using pivot tables in excel seems to be magical to many aid workers. Most IT departments are focused on risk (how often do I need to change my password of 8 characters, containing both upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and other characters that I am supposed to memorise???) and not on enabling operations, connecting people with people, or seeing connections between the vast data we incessantly collect.

Credit: Vincent Trousseau, CaLP, Nigeria, 2014.

Aid agencies are wedded to their manufacturing organisational models in the modern day connection economy and therefore are riding the downward wave of irrelevance. Through the changes in technology, there is a convergence of information and accountability that demands greater choice be given to those affected by disasters and for those helping to be held to higher standards. People know more, expect more, and want to be treated with dignity, which requires organisations to change.

The options for using the technology available to us to improve the choice and lives of those affected by disasters are endless. Some ideas include:

Cash for information

After every disaster, we rely on some form of needs assessment to be done often before we can do any tangible response action. Thankfully, we have seen a large increase in organisations moving from paper to digital assessments, but this is still viewed by some as risky. Given that many organisations work prior to disasters with the same communities affected by the disaster and therefore have, or should have, some form of relationship with them, why don’t we have their phone numbers? Why don’t we immediately text them with two questions – ‘are you and your family alive?’ and ‘what are your top three needs right now?’. We ask these questions when we eventually get to them to do the assessment, so why do we wait? And after receiving their response, why don’t we send them $20 or $50 telling them to spend the money however they want? It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a symbol, a thank you for responding to our questions, and likely an incentive. Plus, these SMS messages can be sent from anywhere using platforms like FrontlineCloud or other like systems. Within minutes of a disaster, agencies can have information about basic needs, by location, and have ‘started’ some basic distributions.

Small Business Finance on day 8 of disasters

When disasters or conflicts happen, they usually interrupt small businesses twice – once when the disaster happens and secondly when aid agencies arrive, overlooking the small business environment already in place in the affected communities. Aid agencies tend not to think about livelihoods and markets till post-30 days of a response and often don’t engage in any ‘livelihood programming’ till post 90 days. Small businesses are the lifeblood of any community worldwide, so in the name of recovery or resilience or plain old assistance, helping small businesses get back to being operational would significantly assist community recovery. So why don’t we find small business owners who have been affected and ask what they need – do they need a capital grant to re-start their business? Do they need a loan? Do they need some form of loan/grant split? In refugee and IDP camps globally, there are bakers, butchers and many other women and men who ran local shops in their communities, but now they don’t. Can we help them restart their business so they can employ others and rely less on aid? Can we run business plan competitions seeking to solve a particular social need (think of a HIF Wash competition run in camp)? Can we provide scaling up grants and support to these businesses similar to grants and support provided in the UK? Can this be done over the mobile phone – both the cash and the support?

Person-to-person Giving & Kiva

Cash programming has richly benefitted from the CaLP network and the development of resources, best practice and relationships globally. This is significant and shouldn't be discounted. So now that we have  robust processes we can begin to branch out trying new approaches,  beyond just how we take what we know and use it in other sectors. Let's have some of us move beyond that.

All the elements are in place and readily available to begin person-to-person giving at scale. However, instead of working with other sectors, we need to join forces with marketers. This is how it could look like: Disasters occur, we quickly collect profiles of people affected (parts of this could be done in the preparedness phase) using a simple digital assessment form. A one month food basket cost is established, which becomes the maximum amount each household can receive. These are synced online to a website where the profiles are displayed and donors can choose who to give their donation to.  (Once households’ maximum amount is reached, the profile is no longer displayed and the money is sent digitally to the head of household's mobile phone.  After a set time (2 days or 1 week), the household receives a SMS asking how they spent the money, they reply and their reply is sent to the donor(s) who donated to them. All the technology exists to do this at relatively low cost. Additionally, all the elements exist in organisations to mass market this to the general public as, currently, aid agencies sell stories to the general public to gather donations for both their development and humanitarian work. What is missing is the will.

Credit: Suraj Shakya, 2013.


The list can go on – why are we still collecting beneficiary data on paper in some organisations when digital collection is better and very cheap? Why are we not using common context monitoring and feedback systems more often? And then there is always digital currency - which aid agencies are researching and experimenting with digital currencies like Stellar for use in emergencies where the local currency is volatile, or in countries where banks are not safe?

And yes of course there are risks in all of this. I can see the people lining up to denounce the ideas and point out all the potential problems, challenges, and ideological disagreements. None of these are applicable in cookie cutter fashion globally, and yes, we still require staff to be wise, to think, and to contextualise. In fact, many of these projects need to be adjusted within a context. No, these aren’t perfect ideas, but before we throw them out, who will put their hand up and join me in exploring if they have life? How they can (and will) change how we “do” aid. Surely these are the types of conversations we need to be pushing and should be expecting at the WHS and events like Aidex etc. Changing our worldview and ways of working requires significant courage and seldom is successful on our own. Get in touch so we can support one another in improving the impact we are all collectively seeking.


Amos Doornbos is a Director of Faces of Another World and Nex34, the Founder of Give Aid Direct and co-led the development of the Speed Portal.

He can be reached at: amos@facesofanotherworld.com  

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