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The Future of Financial Assistance: Why we wrote it, and where next

The world is changing rapidly. The way we deliver assistance is not. The CALP Network and IARAN’s new report on the Future of Financial Assistance makes clear that (i) significant change is urgently needed – new partners, new tools, new modes of collaboration, (ii) change must be drive by what’s needed, not what we’d like to offer and (iii) humanitarian actors are one piece of a complex puzzle – we need to work differently with governments, the private sector and with recipients to better understand where we can and must add value. Millions of people rely on cash being delivered well. This is a critical moment to reshape the way we do so, in partnership with others. This is the start of a process across the CALP Network of understanding what change is needed and how we get there.

21 November 2019

More than a year ago, we sat down to look at a messy problem: delivering more cash implies significant changes to the ways in which we work. The changes we are seeing in practice across the CALP Network, however, are largely supply-driven, uneven and often painstakingly slow.

Many of our members tell us they see the need for change across the system, but finding the time and vantage point in their daily work to better understand the landscape and make the case for change internally can be a challenge. How could we support the CALP Network to realise opportunities for working together differently? To identify the emerging challenges we face and – critically – respond to the demand from cash recipients for better, more reliable, more user-centred assistance?

We set out to develop, as a network, a common understanding of possible futures for financial assistance: the range of financial flows available to people in crisis. How could many millions of people in crisis receive more effective, more user-centred financial assistance in future? What does this mean for the role of humanitarian actors and others involved in financial assistance? How can we make sure that our analysis starts from what is needed not from what we are set up to provide?

We plan to use this to launch a series of discussions about what change is needed and how we can all work together to deliver this.

Why is looking at the future of financial assistance important for doing better today, and why is the CALP Network the place to take this on?

1. Because cash actors and the CALP Network are at the cutting edge of new ways of working.

Every day CALP members are working through the challenges and opportunities posed by delivering more cash: working with the private sector and with new technologies; delivering in ways which shift the role of humanitarian actors from that of deciders and providers to that of facilitators of people’s own recovery; working with a tool that cuts across silos and agency mandates. This work aims to bridge the gap between theory and practice, working with actors who are already tackling these issues on the ground to turn analysis into concrete change.

2. Because as humanitarian actors we tend to focus on the “right now” problems, and can miss the big, critical shifts happening around us.

The humanitarian landscape looks radically different to 10 years ago. People need many of the same things but find themselves in different settings, facing different challenges and with different opportunities. People in need – in many places all over the world – are better connected, increasingly urban, increasingly mobile and displaced for longer than ever before. While the gap between needs and resources continues to grow, new channels exist for meeting humanitarian need – mobile money, remittances, market-based support, peer-to-peer giving. But with all these tectonic shifts happening around us, the discourse in humanitarian settings is focused on the obviously urgent and the short-term. This work is intended to underscore that adapting and evolving to changing needs, contexts and tools is urgent too.

3. Because change in the system tends to be driven by what we can offer, not what is needed.

In the humanitarian sector, delivering assistance which recipients value and need is, by and large, not what drives a project, programme or organisation’s success or failure.In the private sector, customer experience drives whether businesses succeed or fail. In the aid system, that feedback loop does not exist. Humanitarian actors are primarily accountable to donors based on a range of harder-to-pin-down measures, leaving them driven more by business models and the skills and capacities they are able to deploy than by what is needed. We want this process to help to flip that analysis, and ensure collective planning comes from a starting point of what good looks like for recipients.

4. Because the strategy that makes sense for an individual organisation might be different from the change that is needed across the system.

In 2018 we spoke to a group of some 20-30 members. Almost every organisation present was redesigning their cash strategy, and had put careful thought into changing needs and tools. But none of these organisations was able to look across the broader landscape and understand what other organisations and networks were planning, leading to many organisations making broadly the same offer. This is likely not the optimal use of resources and skills across the system. We’re seeing new collaborative models emerging, and this is positive. We want this piece of work to help members understand what’s possible collectively, as well as on an individual level.

5. Because the incentives to change the ways we work are weak unless the case for change is clearly understood.

Working differently means hiring in different skills, building different systems and investing in new and sometimes unfamiliar partnerships. It’s expensive and slow in an environment where efficiency and speed are paramount. But while the evolutionary pressure in this sector might not be obvious, there are changes happening outside the humanitarian sector which mean that we need to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant. Recipients increasingly have a range of potential avenues of support open to them, and humanitarian actors should add value where they’re best placed to do so. Change is happening whether or not humanitarian actors drive it or choose to engage with it. We want this work to show that the incentives to change outweigh the cost.

6. Because a changing humanitarian landscape implies a transfer of power from humanitarian agencies to recipients…

…and a shift in the role of humanitarian actors from deciders and providers to facilitators of individuals’ and communities’ own recovery. The promise of delivering more cash was that power and agency would start to shift from humanitarian organisations, who have traditionally defined need, designed the package of assistance to be received and physically provided that assistance, to recipients. Receiving cash (rather than stuff) gives you more control over what you choose to buy, can be delivered through less time-intensive and potentially stigmatizing channels and – because the role of humanitarian actors in physical delivery is reduced – leads to a leaner aid system with more of every dollar reaching the people who need it. But we’re not seeing these shifts in practice. Humanitarian actors continue to deliver cash through the same systems and approaches we use to deliver stuff, and the use of that cash is often restricted or tied to particular outcomes. We want this process to show that humanitarian actors are a small slice of a bigger whole and show how we can work with others to fundamentally reshape the relationship between aid providers and aid recipients.

How did we go about developing a common understanding of what the future of financial assistance might look like?

First we turned to the experts on the future of the humanitarian system. The Future of Cash panel during Cash Week 2018 was an urgent call for change: change must be driven by demand, not by supply; get to grips with the opportunities and risks associated with the digitisation of aid; get serious about working with the private sector; learn to deliver through networks and break down silos.

Then we asked our partners across and outside the CALP Network to help us think through what the future might look like and what this means for the ways in which we work today. We enlisted the help of IARAN, who built on their recent analysis on the Future of Aid: NGOs in 2030 and all of your inputs to develop four scenarios for how financial assistance might look by 2030. We got some great feedback on draft scenarios and what these might mean as well as your insights on what this might mean for the ways in which we work.

The report we launched this week, which was produced in collaboration with IARAN, shows what a range of possible futures might mean for how people in crisis access financial assistance, and starts to unpack what this means for the ways in which we should adapt our ways of working. We want this to launch a process of working across the network to understand how we can best adapt to changing environments, emerging opportunities and new challenges.

We are extremely excited to be embarking on this journey together. During Cash Week we will convene the first discussion of what this means for where we go as a network, and how we can support positive, people-centred change. Change in the humanitarian system is complex, but within the CALP Network we have people and organisations working every day to meet growing need in changing contexts. We hope that, with all of you, we can start to bridge the gap between theory and practice, building a more efficient, effective, accountable and people-centred financial assistance that’s fit for the future.

Main image credit: Amy Christian- Oxfam