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Musical Money Messages – Mobile Innovation from Mercy Corps

We don’t usually put music, quizzes and voice messages in the same category as effective humanitarian cash and voucher assistance (CVA). So, our interest was piqued when Mercy Corps won USAID’s ‘2022 Digital Development Award’ for a human-centered program which used songs, games, and quizzes sent via mobile phone to engage with people receiving CVA. Phone apps and interactive voice responses are also part of a programme that supports remote farmers and low-income individuals in the Karnali River Basin, Nepal. We interviewed Cecial Adhikari– Senior Manager for Emergency Response to find out more.

9 February 2023 — By Cecial Adhikari

Congratulations on winning a “Digital Development Award” from USAID for your work in Nepal. What did that mean to you?

It felt wonderful!

The award endorsed our belief that digital technology is the future of cash and voucher assistance even in areas with little to no digital literacy. It was amazing to see the positive changes in the way CVA was used by households as a result of the Social and Behavior Change Communication (SBCC) message we shared through the digital platforms.

Can you tell me a bit about the project that won the award?

BHAKARI is a “multi-year emergency” program, supported by USAID. As the program is designed to be implemented over three years, it allowed for Mercy Corps to adapt and innovate around digital solutions. Launched in October 2020, BHAKARI works to improve food security and resilience in the Karnali River Basin in Nepal, which is home to the most vulnerable and socially excluded communities in Nepal. The program aims to increase household food availability, improve access to sustainable water sources, and reduce the impact of natural disasters, while also empowering marginalized groups.

We used short-term cash and voucher transfers and cash-for-work to address immediate needs while working with the community to improve agricultural techniques, livelihoods, access to financial services and sustainable water sources. We took a disaster risk reduction approach to help communities better cope with floods, droughts, water scarcity and other natural disasters that continually affect food security.

What technology was used?

The BHAKARI program’s emergency response and preparedness objectives were split into three phases: 1) preparedness, 2) emergency response and 3) post-disaster response. Digital solutions were used at each stage.

To make sure information was delivered quickly and accurately, we used an IVR system managed by Viamo. Through this, we sent audio messages to participants via their mobile phones. The messages were in Nepali and other local languages and were designed to be engaging and easy to understand.

During the emergency response phase, we used Laligurans – a cloud-based system – to reduce the cost of delivering assistance. We used it to help with targeting, conducted assessments, data collection and monitoring – working through a call centre. Feedback was collected using carefully crafted surveys to ensure we heard from women and marginalized individuals who might easily be missed.

What was particularly innovative about this approach?

The use of digital technology, particularly SMS, for CVA and SBCC messaging was not a new concept in Nepal. What made our approach unique was the comprehensive way we used technology to manage different aspects of the programs. It helped us with targeting, identification of differential needs, supply management, and providing training and SBCC messages to help people make informed choices. Because of the network issues faced in most of our working communities, we also ensured offline functionality.

What did this look like step-by- step for recipients?

In this program, participants were identified through participatory approach with the communities and validated using a vulnerability index. Then they were enrolled in the program through online and offline systems (whichever system is feasible) where they could order what they needed through a mobile app using a unique electronic voucher with a QR code. Participants were trained on how to use the vouchers and given information on nutrition and making informed choices. The program team would then go to each participant’s doorstep to collect the orders.

The orders were sent to the participating vendors in the nearest market who were also trained on use of the mobile app. Vendors then packed the orders which were transported to a central point for collection. This system allowed the program to enrol participants, monitor assistance in real time, and reduce travel time and cost for participants.

Did technology ever get in the way of putting people first?

BHAKARI uses a people-focused approach in creating and sending messages through technology. Everyone involved, including program participants, local partners and project team members were a part of the process from start to finish. Initially, we only used the 321 platform where people had to call a hotline number to listen to messages but, to make it more accessible, we started sending messages directly to registered mobile phones in the project area.

The program chose participants using a vulnerability index to help reach the most vulnerable and excluded households. We have an app for social mobilizers to register participants and calculate their vulnerability score.

The most vulnerable households are then included in the program and even labor-poor households who are unable to participate in the for Cash for Work program receive unconditional cash transfers. BHAKARI’s technologies are designed to always put people first, making sure that the most vulnerable groups are reached.

Are you able to continue supporting the technology once the project ends?

The technology used in this program will not be supported financially or technically after the project ends, but project partners have gained valuable knowledge that can help create a digital vision for the future. Aria Technologies is developing a software that can be used by emergency teams without relying on software service providers, and Viamo manages the 321 platform for social and behaviour change communication messages that can be accessed for free by anyone in the country during emergencies. The market information system and participant registration app, developed by BHAKARI and Aria Technologies, can also be used by other organizations to map communities, track market information, and provide early warning messages.

We are working on building local capacity to use and maintain these systems to ensure sustainability. It’s also good to see that the project has caught the attention of government departments who have shown interest in adopting these digital technologies in the future.

What do you think other humanitarians should take from this?

I hope by sharing this experience, we will encourage others to use technology to maximum effect and look at all the ways it can be used to support delivery of high-quality work as efficiently as possible. Technology can help communities make informed decisions and improve their experience of receiving aid, it can help us collect information, map needs, track market access, update prices and lots more.

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Bio of Author

Cecial Adhikari is an experienced humanitarian professional with expertise in Cash and Voucher Assistance. He has worked in various countries including Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Somalia. Currently Cecial is working as Senior Manager – Emergency Response with the USAID/BHA funded BHAKARI activity, a multi-year emergency program implemented by Mercy Corps Nepal. Cecial has successfully demonstrated digital transfer systems in some of the remote locations in Nepal.

Photo credits: Mercy Corps Nepal Archive