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COVID-19 and CVA: how are operational actors responding?

30 March 2020 — By The Cash Learning Partnership, CashCap

The COVID-19 pandemic will have devastating consequences on people’s livelihoods and employment, especially in post-fragile, crisis and post-crisis environments.” Global Humanitarian Response Plan: COVID-19

We don’t yet know exactly how the COVID-19 pandemic will be experienced by the world’s most vulnerable people, or the details of how it will play out in communities who are already in crisis. But we do know the consequences will be dire. We know it will sorely test already stretched health facilities. We know it will spread rapidly in places where physical distancing (often called social distancing) and regular handwashing are not an option. We know that families who already struggle to afford basic necessities will be hit by sickness, income loss, restrictions of movement. And we know that economic and health shocks will create a vicious cycle: “Poverty can fuel contagion, but contagion can also create or deepen impoverishment.”

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen significant discussion on the CALP Network d-groups and elsewhere on what the COVID pandemic means for cash and voucher assistance (CVA). The CALP Network have produced crowd-sourced guidance which summarises the key resources and learning from across the network, which is regularly updated as new resources are produced.

But there hasn’t been as much discussion of how this crisis is playing out in the countries in which we operate or of how CVA actors and Cash Working Groups are preparing to respond. To start to address this gap, CashCap and the CALP Network reached out to a number of Cash Working Groups (CWG) and operational agencies to understand their key concerns, challenges and the actions being taken. In addition, CashCap conducted a survey of their 16 deployed experts, finding that 69% of them are actively engaged in COVID preparedness and response discussions.

We spoke to Cash Working Group leads and Technical Advisers in Uganda, Colombia, Nigeria and Bangladesh, and to global cash leads at UNHCR, MercyCorps and the ICRC to understand their main priorities. So far the feedback is:

How are Cash Working Groups around the world preparing and responding?

  1. We envisage significant humanitarian impacts

We asked Leela Raj Upadhyay (CashCap), who leads the Cash and Markets Working Group in Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh), what he sees as likely impacts of COVID-19 on the humanitarian situation and response there: “The general public and humanitarian actors have lots of fear at this moment for the impact of the crisis, due to the high density of population in the Cox’s Bazar region, and even significantly higher in Rohingya refugee camps. Health facilities and services are insufficient, so the crisis might especially impact the most vulnerable. … Inside the camps, there are already some consequences, as education facilities and services have been closed, larger coordination meetings suspended, all trainings for refugees, and improvement works in settlements are being stopped. Distributions are being reorganized, reducing the number of beneficiaries at any one distribution point and increasing the distribution period from monthly to once in two months… From the perspective of the beneficiaries, there is some confusion on rumours that have been circulating about the COVID, and they are concerned about how the humanitarian community is going to engage them in the future.”

  1. CWGs are working quickly to support operational partners and coordinate preparedness

Ajayi Ayobamidele (OCHA) who co-leads the Cash Working Group for BAY States in Nigeria. He has been leading efforts to prepare for the lockdown and its impacts on cash operations. “There have so far been no recorded cases of Covid-19 in BAY States”, Ayo told us, “but as soon as a case is recorded we can expect the same response we have seen elsewhere in the country: markets and banks closed, flights grounded and land borders closed.” The closure of banks and markets would significantly impact the ability to provide effective cash assistance and cause significant protection issues.

To prepare for such a situation, Ayo convened a virtual meeting last Thursday for key CVA actors, which was joined by colleagues from several countries. They discussed how to ensure that effective CVA could continue, and drew up a series of recommendations which will be taken forward by a five-member task team. These include advocating with the Government for containment measures which balance limiting the spread of the virus with continued humanitarian access, including access to markets (where this can be done safely) and continued functioning of financial service providers. The need to relax bureaucratic hurdles – such as sharing beneficiary lists with the anti-graft office – is also key to the effectiveness of the response.  This advocacy is helped by the close relationship between the Cash Working Group and the State Authorities, who co-chair the group in Borno.

  1. There need to be rapid changes to the ways in which we deliver assistance

We asked Helene Smith (CWG Coordinator) and Azim Noorani (CWG Technical Adviser)  both from CashCap,hosted by UNHCR and WFP respectively, supporting  the Uganda Cash Working Group, what they see as the biggest challenges over the coming months. “The pandemic will have significant operational and programme quality implications for at least the next two to five months, impacting the 1.4 million refugees across Uganda who currently receive food or cash assistance. In January 2020 around 450,000 refugees across nine settlements (36% of the total refugee population) were receiving monthly cash distributions. We need to think carefully about risks, mitigation measures and trade-offs at distribution points (whether cash or in-kind). These distributions involve large gatherings of people standing very close to each other for several hours. They are physically/manually or biometrically verified, before receiving cash and/or in-kind food assistance. This whole process clearly represents the polar opposite of ‘social distancing’… In parallel are newly issued directives for how to seek to ensure the safety and health of field teams which will need to be prioritized, but elements of which (e.g. requirement to stay 1 metre away from other humans; for no physical contact between staff and beneficiaries, or between beneficiaries) may be difficult or indeed impossible to observe in reality during a distribution.”

  1. Cash is being prioritised by governments and humanitarian actors in many contexts

In many contexts, governments and humanitarian actors are looking at delivering more cash, as it is seen as a rapid economic stimulus and can be delivered remotely. Emilie Arnaud, CashCap Technical Adviser to CCD in Colombia told us: “In Colombia now, cash and voucher programs are getting a lot of visibility both in terms of the national response and their social protection schemes and in terms of the humanitarian programs. So, one of the interesting developments is that the government has just announced massive cash transfer schemes or schemes in general to respond to the virus, which have various components. So, there’s cash transfers to families who have bank accounts and a list that they have through their Social Security schemes already. And they’re going to do food distributions directly to people’s homes. So, it’s the most vulnerable people. And then on our side and then a humanitarian team, we’re also trying to gather information about the most vulnerable people in terms of their need for cash assistance. It was also a direct ask from the government. So, we’re very much working in coordination with them having identified cash as the priority.”

  1. Communication with affected people is key

Emilie Arnaud from CCD Colombia told us, “We know for sure that there is a huge need for communication with communities. We see examples of how migrant refugees, vulnerable households are all communicating through WhatsApp and they are getting fake news. They are getting fake information regarding cash transfers and voucher programs and food distributions. So, we have situations where they all line up in different parts of the countries to get assistance. But it’s actually not true. We have people that are trying to benefit from the situations to fool people promising assistance when they’re actually trying to access different things.”

How are humanitarian CVA actors responding at the global level?

We asked a number of CALP members what actions were being taken across agencies to support COVID preparedness and response through CVA:

Jo Burton, Cash Transfers and Markets specialist at the ICRC, said, “ICRC is prioritising the use of digital cash over vouchers and material assistance to reduce the risk of transmission. We’re providing practical tips to field teams on how to deliver cash in ways that reduce risk, reinforcing existing programmes, as well as looking at new responses. We’re ramping up cash where we’re already delivering it, using existing mechanisms wherever possible. A crisis like this is not the time to be experimenting with new delivery channels and approaches. We’ll be carefully monitoring how markets are functioning – both changes in people’s ability to access markets and interruptions in supply chains which affect the items available and their prices. Changes to either of these might mean that cash stops being a viable response option, and we’ll need to learn and adapt as we go.”

Annika Sjoberg, Senior Cash Officer at UNHCR said, “The response is very context-specific. We are pursuing a range of approaches from increasing the transfer value, frontloading of payments, an increased use of digital payments – to testing of new technology such as contactless biometrics and a move from cash to in-kind when restrictions to functional markets is a reality. Working with partners is a key piece of course where we can reduce the transmission of COVID–19 through collaborative approaches and deliver cash efficiently together. For displaced, linking cash to the government response plans, and including them whenever possible, is a key priority globally”.

A spokesperson for WFP told us: “WFP’s focus is to maintain our cash-assistance worldwide to vulnerable people, while ensuring the safety of beneficiaries, partners and staff. In line with WFP’s “Do No Harm” principal, Country Offices are adapting distributions, implementing mitigating measures and monitoring operational conditions. We are frontloading assistance and ensuring healthy food and other essential needs pipelines at retailers, while closely monitoring market and financial changes within each context to adapt modality of assistance as and when needed. Programme designs are being re-examined to ensure they continue to meet the needs of beneficiaries in each context. Because the ability of vulnerable households to meet their essential needs will likely be affected, WFP is working with Cash Working Groups to address any increases in vulnerability in current target populations and newly vulnerable populations and adapt transfer values and coverage accordingly. Collaboration with other agencies, organisations, and government social protection schemes is a key part of WFP’s response to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on households, communities and markets.”

Vladimir Jovanovic, CTP Advisor for MercyCorps, said “We are acutely aware of the fact that the economic impact of the pandemic will be borne disproportionately by society’s most vulnerable, and we’re working around the clock to make sure our programmes are ready for the unprecedented challenges that Covid-19 presents us all with. As with our peers and partner agencies, we’re prioritising efforts that minimize the risk of transmission, making sure that transfers are delivered to those who need them most, even under stringent restrictions. We’ve tried to remain consistent by not introducing untested concepts, but have innovated wherever we could; this is the time to double down on what we know works to enable scale. Delivering lump sum transfers, pivoting away from vouchers, shifting to remote data collection and integrating behavioural messaging are just some of the things we’ve focused on in the first few weeks. Helping our teams think through how to maximise existing partnerships with technology and payment providers has been part and parcel of this process, in lieu of shifting regulatory environments. Wherever possible, we’re softening or removing conditionality and restrictions, and trying to shift to digital payment ecosystems wherever these are viable. We’re also closely monitoring changes and expansions to government social protection programmes, and are preparing for closer collaboration with these systems.”

What is clear is that we are all operating in a context of deep uncertainty. But there is a huge amount of work ongoing, with agencies moving extremely quickly as the situation evolves.

Please keep submitting resources, learning and questions here, and through the d-groups. We hope you and your teams are staying safe and healthy, and we look forward to supporting your efforts throughout this crisis.


Main image: A distribution with distancing measures in place, DRC Nigeria (Yann Faivre)