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Harnessing Digital Technology for Cash Transfer Programming in the Ebola Response

By Amandine Frisetti, CaLP Ebola Project Manager

In the wake of the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis, USAID/Food for Peace (USAID/FFP) decided to address the resulting food insecurity in Liberia and Sierra Leone via cash-transfer programming (CTP) rather than in-kind food aid. Information available at the time showed that markets were recovering as quarantines and other movement restrictions were lifted, making cash a viable option.

Through nine implementing partners across the two countries, USAID/FFP helped over 500,000 people get the food that they needed during 2015 and 2016. Recipients of the cash grants reported an overall improvement of 27 percent against the household hunger scale and major improvements in dietary diversity.

Once the decision to use CTP was made, partners needed to decide how to deliver the cash transfers. Early in the crisis, e-transfers were explored as a fast and secure tool to deliver assistance in such an unforeseen epidemic, and were quickly used to pay health workers. This experience served as the basis of analysis for USAID/FFP partners in planning their CTP response. Even though digital technology for CTP in Liberia and Sierra Leone was almost unheard of before 2014, nearly all partners initially planned to use e-transfers to deliver the cash.

However, in both countries, the reality of mobile network coverage and local e-transfer capacity was much different in rural areas and urban centers. With inadequate facilities and a limited number of service providers, the potential for e-transfers was in fact very limited and not a viable mechanism for reaching most beneficiaries. Consequently, direct cash was used as the delivery mechanism for 93 percent of the unconditional cash transfers (UCT) across Liberia and Sierra Leone.

This experience is not unique to the Ebola response, but this case shows the importance of localized context analysis and feasibility assessments. Evidence is not just important for measuring impact; it is also crucial for appropriate project design. Realities on the ground need to be considered from the outset. To do this, it is critical to build on the capacity and knowledge of local partners and NGOs implementing activities in crisis-affected areas.

The case for CTP has broadly been made, but the devil is in the contextual details. As highlighted by speakers at CaLP’s Global Cash Forum (report available here), cash and voucher programs need to be carefully designed for each operating context. E-transfers provide an opportunity to deliver cash efficiently at scale, but the contexts in which e-transfer mechanisms are robust enough to meet all needs, let alone where a single provider can cover all needs, are currently limited. To design appropriate programs, we need to build an evidence base that looks systematically at the intersection between context, CTP design, and quality.

For more information on CaLP’s work to address this evidence gap, see the Discussion note on Building evidence and developing guidance on operational models for CTP.

For more on USAID/Food for Peace (USAID/FFP) Ebola Crisis response read our latest publication " Cash Tranfers for Food Security in Epidemics. A Review of the USAID Food for Peace Response to the Ebola Crisis in Liberia and Sierra Leone" here


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