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A short history of cash and voucher assistance – 6 key lessons and observations

How has cash and voucher assistance evolved? Why has the use of humanitarian cash and voucher assistance (CVA) increased so rapidly in recent years? How has it emerged from the fringes to become an established part of all major humanitarian responses? Four people who have travelled the CVA path reflect on how we got here what lies ahead.

29 April 2021 — By Karen Peachey

Zehra Rizvi, Karen Peachey, Jemilah Mahmood, Nigel Timmins, Sarah Bailey

Why worry about the past? Because the history books are whispering from their shelves, urging you to apply their hard-earned wisdom to present times. Fifteen years has passed since the inception of CaLP, and we felt a yearning to look back and take stock.

Where has CVA come from? Where should it go next? What are the mistakes we must learn from? And where is there cause to celebrate? We decided to record a podcast to explore these questions.

Recently, I was lucky enough talk to four people who collectively represent a lifetime’s knowledge and experience in Cash and Voucher Assistance: Jemilah Mahmood, Zehra Rivzi, Nigel Timmins and Sarah Bailey (full bios at end of this blog). The conversation was recorded for our latest CashCast, and was a real treat – with great insights, stories and a clear passion to push for more change!  The main points could be broadly summarised against 6 key themes.

1. Not that long ago cash was on the fringes of humanitarian aid

Dr Jemilah Mahmood who has been a key player in some of the big political developments around cash, began the conversation by grounding us in reality: “first of all I think that let’s be honest that cash has been around for a very long time, in social systems, in social protection systems, in philanthropy and in Islamic finance. Cash has been a central component of how we assist communities and people.”

Jemilah is right of course, but it is also true that 15 years ago, the use of CVA in the humanitarian sphere was still seen as a fringe activity limited to a small number of scattered projects. Even 5 years ago, it still made up less than 8% of international humanitarian assistance. In the last few years, growth has been rapid. It is now an essential part of almost every response and accounted for a very significant ONE FIFTH of international humanitarian assistance in 2019.

Nigel Timmins then shared how – in the early days of CVA – when he was with Christian Aid in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, he and his colleagues arranged to meet OUTSIDE of the official humanitarian tents, dedicated to formal clusters, to discuss the implementation of some CVA programming.

I clearly remember sitting on the ground outside the tent to talk about cash and I kind of think  perhaps back then if we’ve made more of an attempt to get into the tent, and to basically say look come on let’s normalize this we might have made progress more quickly”.

Sarah Bailey reports a similar story when following the lessons emerging from the Indian Ocean Tsunami cash responses in 2004/2005 while based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was driven to respond in the best possible way, and that resulted in her leading a small cash transfer pilot, which took several attempts to get off the ground: “it was sort of not something that was seen as part of our general work, it was just at the smallest possible level.”

2. We’re obsessed with the evidence – we need to trust people and stop obsessing….

Sarah, who has been instrumental in building the evidence base for cash, reports that before cash was widely and firmly accepted there was a time that it was questioned, often questions with hands up in the room about ‘well what about women? Will they be disadvantaged? What about inflation? will this occur? What about security?’”

She went onto reflect that while risks should be understood, people were risk averse when it came to cash. The persistent focus on risk was one way that cash was put under the microscope when it came to evidence: “in the early to mid-2000s and the 2010s cash was held to a much higher standard [than in-kind]” with evidence ranging from rigorous randomised control trials to evaluations of very small pilots. Ultimately she believes this says as much about the sector as it does about cash “it reveals a lot of biases and so in that respect cash transfers have been a trojan horse for tackling some long-standing and important issues, not just about evidence and effectiveness but about our culture within the international humanitarian system”.

Sarah Bailey cash is a Trojan horse for other issues in the humanitarian sector

But has the case been made now? Jemilah, whilst celebrating the work of people who have collected together a very strong evidence base feels that there still is an inherent bias and mistrust of communities to actually receive cash, so no matter what we do that bias will stay”. 

Zehra Rizvi, who has been one of a number of passionate cash advocates from the start of this journey, agrees: “People are still not convinced…it’s so sad”.  She refers back to the very early days of CaLP, when it gained its first grant from ECHO: “and we were like, ‘okay so it is just going to be a short term sort of thing, we just want to make sure everybody knows about cash, we’ll collect some evidence and then CaLP doesn’t need to exist anymore’ and here we are however many years later with the role just as important”.

And it’s not because the evidence isn’t there.

During the conversation two very early papers that conclusively made the case for cash were cited more than once: The Good Practice Review 11: Cash Transfer Programming in Emergencies from 2011 and also Cash Transfers in Emergencies: Evaluating Benefits and Assessing Risks from 2001, Sarah suggests that research continued long after the case had been made: from the evidence side you kind of go ‘all right not too much has been changing, we’ve been generating more evidence about more detailed things and in different ways’.”

While there were things to lament, things were changing.  Sarah talked about the time when she was the secretariat manager for the high-level panel on humanitarian cash transfers in 2015, describing a decision made jointly by everyone on the panel: “we’re not going to discuss whether or not cash transfers are an appropriate way of assist assisting people. We’re going to really get to the argument of what does this mean for the humanitarian system to move forward in a transformative way. That argument is done, let’s talk about what this really means”. The first recommendation of the Panel’s report was that the questions should always be asked: ‘why not cash?’ and ‘if not now, when?’.

Jemiliah famously echoed this call at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. The narrative was shifting and this was a key moment that catalysed a great deal of change.

3. Cash is not about innovation or efficiency…it’s about people, dignity and choice.

As Jemilah very clearly describes: “We must not forget that cash is a tool for dignity and I think that’s where the greatest value of cash is, that people actually have a right to choose what they want  to buy or to own in times of crisis”.

While agreeing with Jemilah, Sarah also argued that when cash is discussed all too often it gets “framed around a language of innovation” when in fact if you “actually look at, what is the most sensible way to assist people in a setting where there’s market access and people do have money?  We didn’t invent it.”

When I asked Sarah if efficiency trumps arguments around dignity, she said: “I believe with donors the efficiency argument is a very strong selling point – bang for your buck – we know that the resources will always outstrip the needs in humanitarian assistance.” believes that often talk of value for money often receives more attention than the ‘softer side’ of cash and benefits around dignity.  But she remains optimistic: “At the end of the day we all agree that helping people in the most dignified way is a really strong and central part of cash transfers”. Jemilah addswhen the efficiency discussion came in all of us as humanitarians will always recognize that at the end of everything its dignity, right? We go in cash is a tool, cash is not the end all. The most important thing is sitting down with people and asking them what they want what they need and listening carefully to that”

Personal stories illustrate the point about dignity better than any evidence base. Nigel shared a story of meeting a woman who had been displaced by an earthquake and had received some cash whilst living at her parents-in-law. She had used the money to make and sell clothes but the thing that sticks with me to this day in my mind was the look on her face as she expressed this, the dignity the pride that came from saying ‘I earned some money and have contributed to the household’ … it was just beautiful, and from that moment I thought this is what it has to be about: enabling those impacted by crisis to be the agents of their own recovery”.

Jemilah tells a similar story which she describes beautifully:

4. Cash needs good allies and – and has had them

During the recording of the CashCast many stories were told of pioneering individuals advancing the use of cash and voucher assistance in humanitarian responses, which eventually led to today’s softer ground. But it has required thoughtful advocates and champions to get here, as Sarah put it “the developments on cash transfers have been because people really advocated for it….every step and every kind of movement that you make ends up achieving something, it’s moved the dial”.

Jemilah charts the rise in the use of cash. She names some of the key players who were ‘pivotal to starting cash programs’ including the Red Cross Movement, Oxfam and CaLP. She also describes the importance of donors and governments (especially the British Government) actually committing to CVA.

She emphasised that change did not happen overnight – “I think there’s no one moment that’s a game changer I think it was building up over time”. However she does single out the the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016, and the Grand Bargain commitments made during this summit as being a pivotal moment.

“What was different with the grand bargain and the World Humanitarian Summit was actually donor commitment and setting targets and indicators. I think that is we cannot underestimate the importance of political will and when donors actually commit to this.”.

5. Joint working is key – and needs to happen even more

It’s pretty clear that collaboration is key. However, the humanitarian sector often struggles to collaborate.  Nigel highlighted this when described how agencies are pitched against one another: At the moment the incentive system is still basically to put your agency first and if you don’t then you’re less visible and if you’re less visible then you don’t get the resources”.

Even the way that the humanitarian system is organised within itself puts clusters into opposition. I came from the WASH sector…a lot of our personal identity is wrapped up in the thing we do and so when somebody says, ‘actually you’re less important now because we’re doing it another way’ that is quite challenging …each of the sectors has an incredibly valid and important role…so therefore it can become quite contested’. 

Zehra responded to Nigel’s point enthusiastically, sharing the advice she gave to shelter and WASH actors who felt threatened by the role of cash: I was like guys there is still literally a program that you need to run, just because you gave the cash does not excuse you from good programming principles” She adds, “we need to stop competing, it is just so annoying and so unnecessary when we can be complementing”.

Jemilah, Zerha, Sarah and Nigel all felt that collaboration with financial bodies has been too slow. Nigel said – if we’d reached out beyond the humanitarian earlier perhaps we would have made more progress more quickly, because we’d have brought in institutions more used to dealing with cash”.

Sarah agrees: “we need to think about…what can we do to make sure that we are attracting and working with entities and … financial institutions that really want to work with us so that we can provide the best possible services to those we assist”. She believes that humanitarians tended to look inwards rather than turning to those with expertise on payments sooner:I think that is certainly an area where having the right relationships earlier on and being a bit more open to those who had that knowledge and not thinking that our generalist aid workers needed to become experts on contracting payment providers”.

While the pace of change could be faster, change is undoubtedly happening.

Zehra shares that she was actually considering leaving the sector until she worked on the response to two major hurricanes in the Caribbean. She explains how a multitude of partners came together ‘being able to bring every single good practice to bear’. They provided basic income for three months and worked closely with the government. The results? When the pandemic hit three years later the government of the British Virgin Islands immediately responded by using the principles and mechanisms of the humanitarian programme set up to provide transfer values higher than their social assistance package “They took it on wholesale”, this was remarkable given that “they had never done something like this before not even in their social assistance programming and their normal social protection”. She went on to say:I am feeling hyper super excited to be able to look at how can we be bringing all the stuff from the humanitarian side and applying it for better shock responsive social protection systems”.

Nigel also feels incredibly positive about the role networks can play in boosting collaboration: “There’s been a plethora of networks evolving as a way to make the case for change so super important I would say”. He also says that “CaLP has played a pivotal role” in giving people the confidence to get behind cash. He explains that CaLP started as “a group of ,technical folk just coming together and swapping stories” but as more individuals agencies and institutions got involved people no longer felt they were ‘sticking their neck out’ by pursuing a cash agenda and were better able to “overcome those fears and those risks and those challenges”.

6. Power to the people – cash is a force for transformation, but the sector needs to be humble and step aside

Sarah describes the difference cash and voucher assistance has made: “Essentially it is one of the most positive changes to occur in the humanitarian system …organizations have fundamentally rewritten their entire systems and ways of operating to be able to take this on board out of recognition that cash transfers are an important way to assist people… it’s fostered…an evidence base that did not exist…so it is a really is a positive story…we should be really proud of”.

She went on to say “cash transfers actually forced a lot of discussion and changes about how we coordinate, about what it means to try to put people at the centre and about how organizations  relate to the people that they assist. It forced a lot of these questions in a way that was a very bottom-up and it forced us to reconcile that we had to absolutely shift humanitarian aid to ask not what are people’s needs but what are the best ways to meet them.”

But despite the huge contribution cash has made to changing the system the panel urged humbleness and a shift in narrative, and to put the humanitarian contribution into perspective, Jemilah elaborates: “humanitarian funding is a drop in the ocean compared to the…wider funding that’s out there….You’re not really saviours of the day. You’re just one little cog in the wheel…it’s about the humility that you are not there to solve everyone’s problems”.

Zehra expands: I wonder if I can start … refusing to answer questions that place the international humanitarian architecture in the middle of the narrative? …We cannot frame the narrative with the international humanitarian structure at the middle – it has to be with people at the centre”.

The theme of putting people in the centre comes up time and time again. Sarah says: “If we shift incentives we shift the core about power dynamics. Become truly comfortable with letting a bit go. Imagine if we just gave cash and then asked people how it changed their life rather than asking them everything they spent it on?”

The last thought goes to Jemilah, who tied together the thoughts of panel perfectly in relation to the future:

“Transformation doesn’t happen because someone tells you it has to transform … it happens when values align and it happens when you provide a clear alternative to what is present …no one wants to acknowledge that the clear alternative is actually devolution of power to people.”

Listen to the Podcast

This blog only covers a small part of the conversation which took place. To really get deeper into this conversation please listen to the podcast.

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Would you rather look forwards then backwards? CaLP’s 2020-2025 strategy puts collective action at the centre of its vision for achieving the change that is both needed and possible. Every CaLP member has a role to play, and we welcome the visionary and creative leadership from across the CaLP network.

Biographies

Dr Jemilah Mahmood has been a key player in some of the big political developments around cash. She is currently serving as the Special Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia on Public Health. Before that, she was Under-Secretary General at IFRC and led the Secretariat of the World Humanitarian Summit, where humanitarian actors were urged to ask ‘why not cash?’ and ‘if not now, when?’.

Sarah Bailey has been instrumental in building the evidence base for cash. She is currently WFP’s Head of Programme in Multi-Country Office, and previously worked for ODI, generating much of the most influential evidence around the effectiveness, efficiency and transformational potential of CVA. 

Nigel Timmins has been a key player in building and supporting the partnerships and networks that have helped cash to grow. He is the Humanitarian Director of Oxfam International, and served at the Chair of CaLP’s Board, for four years before stepping down in 2019.

Zehra Rizvi was one of a number of passionate and motivated cash advocates from the start of this journey. She is a regional CVA and social protection specialist currently working for UNICEF MENA. Zehra has worked on cash in many guises with many organisations and as an independent consultant. She was also a member of CaLP’s first Steering Committee in 2008 representing the British Red Cross.