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It’s time to reframe the debate around locally led CVA

In June Christian Aid and several partners published their paper Who holds the levers of design? Insights and ideas for cash and locally led response. In this blog Matthew Tebbutt, who co-authored the paper, picks up on some of its key ideas. 

16 July 2024 — By Matthew Tebbutt

This is a more detailed version of a blog originally posted on the Christian Aid website. 

It is clear that international aid systems should start distinguishing between localising institutional Cash and Voucher Assistance (CVA) – which focuses on equipping local actors to work within international CVA systems – and enabling CVA as part of locally led response – which focuses on equipping international aid systems to support and strengthen endogenous responses. Both approaches have value, but they are distinct from one another, and should be recognised as such. 

Localising cash assistance 

In recent years, there’s been a wide debate about how CVA can be localised. We’ve noticed that this debate is often founded on two key assumptions around how best to do this: 

  1. We need to bring more local actors into the aid system to help with the design and delivery of cash assistance. 
  2. The best way to achieve scale and efficiency gains is by harmonising approaches and (more often than not) linking with existing government social protection schemes. 

Neither of these are inherently wrong. In fact, these ideas are doing a great deal to drive positive change in the international aid sector. However, they are not the full picture.  

Challenges for local responders 

Firstly, not all local responders want to be part of the international system. Many aim to target gaps in existing social protection systems or the international aid system. Some may simply want to change their existing activities onto a humanitarian footing in response to a crisis. For example, those working with marginalised groups may now want to continue working with these people, but offering humanitarian aid as well as their existing services. 

Secondly, ‘mutual aid’ and other locally led responses, already do reach a vast scale, but international agencies find this hard to recognise because we don’t have a strong way of measuring it. 

Thirdly, many smaller scale local actors find cash assistance has high barriers to entry. Often cash feasibility assessments, market assessments, and other processes feel too burdensome. The CALP glossary of terminology is 41 pages long1, showing that there is an array of technical language to get to grips with. Yet at its heart cash is a very simple concept. There must be a way of simplifying CVA approaches, for small scale local actors. 

Two approaches to localising CVA 

In Christian Aid and partners’2 new discussion paper and briefing noteWho holds the levers of design – insights and ideas for cash and locally led response, we explore the difference between localising institutional CVA, which focuses on equipping local actors to work within international CVA systems, and enabling CVA as part of locally led response, which focuses on equipping international aid systems to support and strengthen endogenous responses. 

Implications for cash and voucher assistance 

We hope this distinction can lead to a real shift in power, where local actors can define how international actors work with them. Incrementally though first it will carve out a space where international actors can develop tools and processes to work with local groups and spontaneous responders on their terms rather than asking them to adapt to international standards. This is not to say all standards are wrong, but we believe there should be space to redraw the relationship between the institutional aid world and local responders. For example: 

  • If people say they want cash, why do so many processes also rely on us proving they can spend it responsibly? 
  • Cash is an inherently simple concept, amid the need for consolidation, interoperability, digitisation etc is there a way for us to find a way back to the basics for smaller scale actors? 
  • Can we understand scale better by looking at the combined impacts of multiple small interventions rather than just through the lens of efficiency? 

The aim is to complement wider aid efforts by recognising that affected communities are always the first and the last responders to any crisis, continuing to work towards long term recovery and development years after international agencies have completed their programmes. 

These conversations will continue in a webinar series, run by the CVA and Locally Led Response working group. The first webinar will be called Compliance & Contextualizing Global Standards (July 18th 13:00-14:30 UK time). Follow up webinars will be held on a) redesigning cash programming tools, b) understanding the line between internationally defined safe programming standards and contextual realities, c) how locally led cash can continue in closing civic spaces3. We look forward to the discussion. 

Author Bio 

Matthew Tebbutt is Christian Aid’s Global Cash and Markets Adviser who has a decade of experience working in humanitarian response. His role is to support Christian Aid teams and partners to implement Cash and Voucher Assistance. He has experience working in several humanitarian and development settings including, South Sudan, Iraq, Libya, and Liberia. Matthew holds an MSc in Economic History from the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Main image: Fyness Tembo in Malawi as part of the Sosure Programme, run by Synod of Livingstonia Development Department (SOLDEV). Credit: Malumbo Simwaka / Christian Aid. June 2022.

1. We at Christian Aid are also guilty as charged in this respect on many occasions, not least in using terms like ‘institutional CVA’, however, we have made strides in simplifying and shortening many tools and guidelines in recent years.

2. The papers are co-authored by partner representatives Fakhre Alam, Simon Mawich Mima Chung, Aydrus Daar, Juliet Donna, May Jarrar, Méschac Nakanywenge, Gloria Soma, and Dan Langoya.

3. The exact titles are to be confirmed, but the topics are set.