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Cash Week 2018: Looking around and looking ahead

Cash Week 2018 aimed to do two things: challenge us all to think differently about our work and to carve out a space to do so. In this blog, the CALP Network's Sophie Tholstrup reflects on the key debates from the week, and asks how we can build on this momentum and identify new ways of working to meet humanitarian need more effectively.

26 November 2018

It’s been a month since the end of Cash Week 2018 – a week of events bringing together the CALP Network’s members and the wider humanitarian community to look at the present and future of cash. As always, we were blown away by the breadth of the work being done, the depth of experience and the challenging questions being posed by our members about our collective work and its future direction. For a list of our ten key takeaways and the conclusions, themes and proposed follow up to each session, I’d highly recommend taking a look at the event report. Here, I’ll share some thoughts about why we decided to hold Cash Week and more detail on the ideas coming out of the week that we’ve been buzzing about.

Why Cash Week?

We’re lucky enough to work with an extended team of thousands of “do-ers”. Given the scale of the challenges we face that’s absolutely right. But because we’re always in response mode, we sometimes miss the opportunities – for collaboration, for new tools and partnerships and for specialisation – that would enable us to have a greater impact. If we only have space to focus on the “right now” issues we’ll end up working in ways that don’t make the best use of the resources, brainpower and energy we have available. Cash Week tried to do two things: challenge us all to think differently about our work and to carve out a space to do so.

We wanted to challenge ourselves to look at our work from a different vantage point, to step outside the confines of our jobs, institutions and ways of organising ourselves and consider opportunities to deliver better. What partnerships or synergies could help us to meet humanitarian need more effectively, in ways which are more accountable, and which recognise the impact of gender, age and differing abilities? What opportunities and threats are coming down the line, and how should we adapt? As one of our Future of Cash panellists put it, we should “approach the future with humility”, asking what will be needed rather than how to remain relevant.

Looking across: how can we become more than the sum of our parts?

You said:

“To work better together and achieve better outcomes we need to move from destructive competition between humanitarian actors. We need to stop competing over volumes and market share, and start competing over impact.”

Participants in several of the events highlighted what they see as a ‘dash for cash’, with too much interest in cash delivery and less focus on how to use cash effectively.  This may be driven by a perception that doing the actual delivery of cash is necessary for an organisation’s long-term survival. How can we move from competition over market share to competition over delivering positive impact for affected communities? How can we measure effectiveness in ways which go beyond dollars delivered? Such changes could include organisations specialising in different parts of the programme cycle and working together differently, as intended by the Collaborative Cash Delivery (CCD) network’s approach. But we’ll need to build trust between actors to create the enabling environment for such a shift.

“We can’t do cash better unless we take localization seriously.”

Across several events it was suggested that success criteria for humanitarian actors should include supporting others to play a leading role, rather than simply ensuring their own operations continue at scale. Humanitarians need to think of themselves differently – as temporary surrogates, as one panellist put it, substituting for state and community systems only until these are back up on their feet. This means focusing on inclusion, not empowerment, by giving people access to opportunities, markets, and financial systems. But ceding power, money and influence to local actors and communities themselves will require real sacrifice on the part of international organisations. While most agreed in principle, some questioned if the incentives are there to do this proactively, or if this change will be forced by external factors. As one panellist succinctly put it, “resistance is futile”.

“The room is full of familiar faces. How do we broaden the conversation to reach new partners who can challenge our views?”

More focus needs to be given to the potential of cash to build partnerships with development actors, governments, and the private sector. The Future of Cash panel suggested that a blocker to effective collaboration was ‘humanitarian exceptionalism’ – the sense that humanitarian actors are distinct from the development ecosystem by virtue of the humanitarian principles, and therefore can’t work together without compromising ourselves. But the gender event, for example, showed that by breaking down silos between communities of practice both sides are able to work more effectively. The Future of Cash panellists suggested that focusing more on outcomes and less on ways of working would, in most contexts, enable us to deliver better. We need to build new partnerships and tap into new sources of expertise, but keep the safety, preferences, dignity and needs of the people we serve at the heart of every decision. 

“We know private sector actors have a greater role to play. How do we work with them in ways which build on the best that both sides have to offer?”

A recurring debate throughout the week was what a more central role for the private sector would mean for the humanitarian principles. There were three broad positions. Some argued that humanitarian actors are the sole custodians of the principles, and that a more marginal role for NGOs and UN agencies means that the principles will be sidelined. Others argued that humanitarian actors have a critical role to play in holding other actors to account, ensuring assistance is principled, needs-based and does no harm. A third group argued that humanitarian actors fall far short of the principles anyway, and that in many cases private sector actors provide a higher standard of care and consideration for their clients. Humanitarians should therefore focus on integrating the core of the humanitarian principles in industry standards which matter for private sector actors. Everyone agreed that we need to recognise what both sides bring to the table. For humanitarian actors, perhaps this is the identification, inclusion and protection of vulnerable people; while for private sector actors, it is timely, secure and efficient delivery. If we can recognise these unique offerings, we can speak a common language, strengthen incentives, and work together more effectively as strategic partners.

Looking forward: how will cash shape the future of the humanitarian system?

You said:

“To be more effective today we need to ask the right questions about the future.”

Many organisations are planning their strategic approach to cash assistance based on an analysis of future trends and challenges, but very few organisations are taking into account what others are doing – both inside and outside the humanitarian sector. A better understanding of future needs, opportunities, partnerships and risks can help us to work better right now, as well as help us to evolve to be more effective in future. Rather than searching for ways to survive and grow, we should be asking whether our work or our organisations will be necessary in the future of humanitarian assistance.

“The scale-up of cash has the potential to strengthen the humanitarian system, but only if we allow it to challenge the existing business model.”

The gap between needs and resources continues to grow, but some suggested the critical problem of humanitarian action is our inability to use the resources we already have effectively. The Future of Cash panellists argued that the humanitarian system as a whole remains too supply-driven and too invested in perpetuating its own role, biased against investing in the prevention of crises, and unwilling (or perhaps unable) to work effectively with actors outside the existing system. Cash assistance, if we approach it right, can narrow the gap between what is needed and what is given, can support more effective collaboration between humanitarian and development, private sector and government actors and can unlock more diverse and sustainable sources of financing. Cash can be a catalyst to build a more effective system, but we haven’t yet used it to fundamentally change the ways in which we work.

“The future is digital, and we’re still analogue. We need to learn – quickly – to do no digital harm.”

Participants agreed that the digitization of aid brings significant opportunities: it enables faster, more efficient delivery, can promote financial inclusion, and can open up channels for communication, participation and feedback. But this also comes with significant risks: panellists noted that technology tends to exacerbate existing inequalities and power dynamics, and the data we collect and hold becomes a commodity and a liability. Our collection and use of vulnerable people’s data is growing faster than the ethical standards or practical knowledge of how to use and protect it effectively. If we’re not certain of the consequences of a particular technology we should not be experimenting on the world’s most vulnerable people. There were several calls from participants for a new ethical standard for the use of technology in humanitarian assistance.

How we can build on these discussions?

Visioning the Future of Financial Assistance

The CALP Network will launch a collaborative process to help us ask the right questions about the future as a network, envisioning the future of financial assistance to meet humanitarian needs. This process aims to build our collective understanding of what future trends mean for opportunities to work differently and deliver better, through new instruments and partnerships, and to support greater collaboration which helps us make better use of scarce resources. We took the first steps on this during Cash Week – you told us what you’re planning for and what unanswered questions about the future of humanitarian need are keeping you up at night. More details on this coming soon.

Data risks: towards practical guidance fit for the future

We hear you loud and clear on the risks of collecting more data than we know how to safely handle, and the need for urgent action. There is excellent guidance out there – the Electronic Cash Learning Network (ELAN) and ICRC in particular have produced helpful documents, but it’s not clear if organisations are making this a top priority and if field teams have the tools they need to understand and mitigate data risks. In the coming weeks we’ll be inviting members to respond to the challenge posed during Cash Week and working with them to build on existing tools to ensure cash actors have what they need to handle data safely.

Private Sector actors as strategic partners

It’s clear from conversations across Cash Week that we need to work together differently to get the best from partnerships with the private sector. The CALP Network will launch a working group on digital payments as a forum to explore better ways to work together and to try to build on the excellent work of ELAN.

Interested in finding out more about any of the above? Do you have other ideas? Outstanding questions? Anything we’ve missed? Let us know on the D-groups.