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Cash 101: Cash and Voucher Assistance Explained

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The Grand Bargain Cash Meetings: what did we learn, how are we doing, where next?

After cash focal points from Grand Bargain signatory organisations gathered in Rome for the second annual meeting of the Grand Bargain cash workstream, we ask how much progress has been made towards commitments, and what remains to be done.

19 June 2018

In June, the cash focal points from Grand Bargain signatory organisations gathered in Rome for the second annual meeting of the Grand Bargain cash workstream. Co-led by WFP and DFID, this gathering is a rare opportunity to come together to understand progress against the Grand Bargain cash commitments and agree to work together to address new challenges and stubborn problems.

The Grand Bargain, born out of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Financing, was signed by 18 donors and 16 aid organisations in 2016 to address the humanitarian financing gap, aiming to deliver an additional $1 Billion to support crisis-affected people over five years through efficiency gains and additional financing.

Of all Grand Bargain workstreams, ODI reported that cash is making the most progress, with 89% of signatories reporting that they’ve increased the use of cash and voucher programming since signing up to the commitments.

The Grand Bargain as a vehicle for progress isn’t perfect. It includes a fairly limited set of actors with no representation from local NGOs and host governments, and captures only a subset of commitments made on cash. Within this group there are some very real differences of opinion, some of which are not very openly addressed, resulting in a tendency to focus on technical (less controversial) fixes to problems which have political (more controversial) dimensions. But despite these shortcomings, the workstream is one of the most important and effective channels for making collective progress to scale up and improve the quality of cash transfer programming.

The workstream defines a number of priority areas, which aim to support progress against the broader commitments. Existing priorities being rolled over into 2018/19 are:

  • Measuring cash: how do we track the amount of cash being delivered across the system and the way it is being delivered?
  • Donor coordination: how can donors work together to support more coherent, accountable, efficient and effective cash programming?
  • Cost efficiency and effectiveness: how do we measure the impact of cash transfer programming, and how do we maximise the impact of each dollar?
  • Cash and risk: what are the risks associated with cash transfer programming (in both perception and reality)? How do we mitigate these and ensure the scrutiny on cash translates into more robust risk mitigation across all types of humanitarian aid?
  • Cash coordination: How do we organise our systems and processes to support higher quality and higher impact cash transfer programming across a response? How do we agree standard approaches, avoid duplication and gaps and work together better?

Plus the following were agreed as new priority areas:

  • Cash and social protection: Where, when and how can humanitarian cash transfer programming link to and support long term social protection systems?
  • Cash and gender: how can we ensure cash transfer programming benefits girls, boys, women and men, and takes account of their differing needs?

And possibly:

  • Multipurpose cash: All unrestricted cash can be used to meet multiple needs. What do we mean by multipurpose cash? Is it a useful definition? Where does it fit in the humanitarian system and how should this adapt to support it?

All of these issues and more were discussed over two days of lively and rich discussions. Some highlights:

We’ve moved from “if?” to “how?”, now we need to move from doing more to doing better. 

There was broad agreement that over the past year we have progressed from discussing whether cash can be a useful tool to, having accepted that it is, discussing how to deploy this tool most effectively. The welcome remarks included a call to action – we’ve focussed on scaling up cash; now’s the time to shift our focus to outcomes and to embedding cash as part of good programming.

the CALP Network’s view: Absolutely agree that the focus needs to be on using cash effectively rather than using cash as an end in itself. As organisations get more familiar with cash we need to have a more sophisticated conversation about quality – learning from each other and building on best practice – but we also need to continue to focus on taking cash to scale and using it whenever it’s the best tool for the job. CTP currently makes up around 10% of total humanitarian aid – GPPi estimates that if we used cash whenever the evidence suggested it was the most appropriate delivery modality that number would be more like 40%.

Let’s include the people we’re talking about in this conversation.

While the Grand Bargain workstream is limited to Grand Bargain signatories, several participants noted that there was a serious lack of diversity in the room. The value of broadening out the conversation to include host governments, national NGOs and cash recipients was a recurrent theme.

the CALP Network’s view: Yes! There is need to ensure the experiences and preferences of cash recipients are front and centre as we discuss priorities. The meeting opened with a panel which included Ground Truth Solutions, who reported that cash recipients prefer cash to other forms of aid but rarely know why they’re receiving cash and how long they will continue to receive it for. We all need to make space to ensure this type of feedback shapes our collective work.

What is multipurpose cash anyway?

While an agreed definition exists – a transfer which seeks to cover, fully or partially, a household’s basic and/or recovery needs – it became clear that participants had very different understandings of what this means in practice. One suggestion, which received significant support, was whether multipurpose cash was a category that’s more trouble than it’s worth – it brings with it a lot of political issues and, given its multiple interpretations, isn’t a useful technical definition in practice. Would we be better served talking about cash as being either restricted (i.e. a voucher of some sort) or unrestricted, with the understanding that if cash is unrestricted it will be spent on whatever recipients prioritise and should be designed as such? More work is needed here to agree what multipurpose cash is and where it fits.

the CALP Network’s view: A really interesting discussion. As this conversation progresses let’s ensure the technical and policy elements stay in lockstep. If a transfer is truly intended to cover basic needs it needs to be large enough to do so, and intentionally designed (which might mean bringing sectoral or technical expertise into the design phase). On the other hand, the concept of multipurpose cash challenges our current structures and processes – maybe focussing less on what it’s designed to do (multipurpose vs cash in support of a single sector) and more on how it’s used is a more recipient-centred and less political way of seeing the world. Maybe it’ll help us work together more effectively and keep a sharper focus on outcomes. The CALP Network is keen to help convene a more productive discussion on this issue over the coming year.

Keeping our eyes on the prize… and knowing more about what that prize looks like.

Participants kept reminding each other to focus less on process and more on outcomes. We’re interested in CTP if and only if it delivers better outcomes for crisis-affected people. But are we approaching those outcomes wrong? How would we think differently about holistic outcomes if we weren’t coming at this from the perspective of a clusterized system? Can we borrow from social protection or development? Other economic and/or wellbeing indices? Let’s understand people’s needs and the impact aid has on their lives from their perspective, not from ours.

the CALP Network’s view: Fully agree we need to get better at understanding outcomes from the recipient’s perspective, and designing programmes accordingly. We should do this in ways which aren’t overly complex or scientific and which capture what’s important to recipients themselves. There’s interesting work ongoing on this through the Efficiency and Effectiveness workstream and through the CALP Network’s revision of the CTP monitoring guidance, which explores the use of wellbeing indices in measuring outcomes. This will be a major focus of the CALP Network’s work with its members this year.

No one is saying cash can do everything… and yet that’s still what some people are hearing.

There was an emphasis throughout the meeting on the need for cash to be one tool among many, and positioned as part of broader effective programming. Cash can never replace, and in most contexts needs to be delivered alongside, a range of service provision and in kind assistance. To ensure that we design and deliver cash well we need the engagement of sectoral experts, who can help to define needs, objectives, complementarity with other types of assistance – including supply side interventions to make cash more effective – and understand outcomes. Yet there was still a sense among some that donors are seeking to “cashify” all assistance at the expense of other forms of aid.

the CALP Network’s view: We see some misperceptions here. As ODI helpfully pointed out during the meeting, “no one is saying cash can do everything”, and we don’t interpret the strong support for cash among some donors as an attempt to “cashify” humanitarian response. The strong support for cash has helped organisations begin to take cash to scale although, as above, we think there’s further to go. But it shouldn’t be interpreted as shouldering out other forms of assistance. The challenge now will be to work together better across the system, ensuring different types of assistance compliment and amplify each other’s impact. We’ll need to work together on technical solutions while ensuring clear communication to dispel some of the political sticking points. Clusters should see cash as an opportunity not a threat, and there’s a need on both sides to increase our engagement and work together better.                                     

Cash coordination as the “tragedy of the commons” – doing it well is in everyone’s interest but no one’s problem.

Panellists expressed disappointment that after more than two years of discussions there was still no clear decision on where cash coordination should sit, who is accountable for it and what it should deliver. One panellist noted: “We talk about being beneficiary-centred… this issue calls into question what our incentives really are”.

the CALP Network’s view: The State of the World’s Cash report highlights the operational impact this lack of clarity is having – it’s a real issue. But in the absence of a decision there’s much we can build on. We’ve seen a range of different types of Cash Working Groups spring up, and people – as always – have found good solutions on the ground. Let’s ensure we’re learning from best practice and feeding this into global policy debate. The standard Terms of Reference for Cash Working Groups being developed by the Global Clusters are one such opportunity. But only if they incorporate meaningful inputs from practitioners in the field and don’t issue another finished product from Geneva which risks not being used. The CALP Network proposes to ensure Cash Working Groups have the chance to shape these and that they capture and support the best existing work.

Further progress on cash, in some areas, depends on reform in other areas.

Cash being the fastest-moving workstream comes at a cost – in some areas there’s a limit to progress that can be made until broader reforms take place. Joint needs assessments, response analysis, risk mitigation approaches, communication with affected communities – cash can inform all of these, and the scaleup of cash makes addressing them more urgent, but in order to make progress we’ll need buy-in from a broader range of actors. Cash is often held to a higher standard than other forms of assistance, and this additional scrutiny should be used to raise the bar for all our work across the system, rather than incentivising against using cash where it’s the best tool.

the CALP Network’s view: Absolutely. One of the most exciting things about cash is that it challenges us to work differently and do better across the system. Most importantly it challenges us to work more collaboratively, and in ways that put holistic outcomes at the centre of our approaches. But how to ensure this becomes all of our work, rather than being seen as a cash-specific set of problems, is a challenge. Strengthening links between the Grand Bargain workstreams and ensuring we’re working with counterparts outside the cash bubble will be key in this.

There’s been great progress from donors, but agreements will need to be road-tested.

Donors are rising to the challenge addressed to them last year – namely that poor donor coordination can lead to incoherent and fragmented responses, and incentivises competitive behaviour among actors. A small group of donors have worked together to develop a joint approach paper, based on a joint visit to the Middle East, which outlines five shared objectives and ways of working. With the paper drafted, they are now seeking broader buy-in.

the CALP Network’s view: This is a very welcome development, and we’re happy to have supported this process. However, the challenge will be putting this into action on the ground. In the next big emergency can donors work together differently to support a more coherent response? And can they reach agreement on areas where their approaches still differ? If not, can we find ways to manage these different views so that operations are not affected? The CALP Network hopes to continue working with donors over the coming year to build on this significant progress and help translate these principles into action.

We’re always fire-fighting and addressing the “right now” problems, in our current roles and within the system we have – let’s find some space to think about the future.

This came up in several sessions. We need to think about how to address challenges and work better within the system we have now, but we also need to think how that system and our roles within it will and should change, including how new players will engage. We’re naturally more focussed on the immediate issues – let’s make space to think about the future.

the CALP Network’s view: Entirely agree. We raised this in the opening panel, and will continue to ensure this perspective is reflected in all our work with members. Let’s try to make some space this year to think this through together, and work out what this means for our priorities right now. The CALP Network is looking forward to working with its members on this.

So what do these discussions mean in terms of a better deal for crisis-affected people? Are these the right areas on which to focus our efforts and attention? In many ways, yes – if significant progress were made on all of these issues over the coming year, we’d have more resources which would be used more effectively and efficiently to reach the right people at the right time. But the challenge thrown to participants on the opening panel – that cash recipients still don’t understand who’s receiving what and for how long – isn’t really addressed here. We’re still prioritising based more on the supply than on the demand side, and we need to fix that.

But this year’s meeting showed some of the extraordinary progress humanitarian actors have made in delivering more cash more effectively, and in leveraging the huge potential of cash to alleviate humanitarian suffering. There is tremendous energy, brainpower, goodwill and support focused on doing cash better – now we need to harness all of this with better collaboration, transcending traditional silos, mandates and boundaries.


Cash 101: Cash and Voucher Assistance Explained

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