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The UN Common Cash Platform: What does it mean and how is the IRC responding?

Together our members and partners have strengthened the evidence base and advanced the debate around gender and cash and voucher assistance. Looking ahead, how can we ensure we turn talk into action to deliver quality CVA for everyone?

5 March 2019 — By Elizabeth Tromans

On December 5, the principals of OCHA, UNHCR, WFP and UNICEF announced their commitment to develop a shared platform for cash programming. The announcement describes this as an effort towards a system which is “collaborative, inclusive and builds on a single transfer mechanism approach and joint cash programming – from needs assessment to monitoring” with a single financial service provider (FSP) for a response, for all agencies. If done well, the platform has the potential to increase efficiency, reduce duplication, avoid parallel systems, and improve collaboration and inclusivity.

I have continued to ask myself three questions since this announcement:

1. What problem are we trying to solve? Is it cost, is it client choice, is it speed?

2. Who will be involved? Which stakeholders will be heard? If it is an open system, how do we ensure protection of the information with which clients entrust us? If the platform is collectively owned, who will own the data? How will the platform take emerging trends into account and adapt over time? Who is responsible for ensuring the needs of the most vulnerable are met?

3. Who “owns” cash? The cash world was already grappling with the question of who “owns” cash, with OCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR, and WFP all positioning to be the global coordination lead on cash within the humanitarian architecture. The organization who “owns” the platform may very well become the de facto gate-keeper for cash data and therefore coordination.

What are the risks?

While the objectives laid out are commendable, they also raise concerns about not only the practicalities but also potential risks.

Program Quality

One of the major benefits of cash programming is that it strengthens the local market. We’re therefore looking at not just how to get cash in the hands of affected people as quickly as possible, but also how to best use the opportunity to strengthen the local market. However, when we join forces with many agencies to deliver cash via a single provider, we lose the opportunity to help many smaller vendors and thus the overall market system. With a single provider, we also lose the opportunity to provide clients a choice and address their specific preferences.

Data privacy and beneficiary protection

Clients, while not in a position to give meaningful consent for the collection of their data, trust us to handle their personal information responsibly. It is our ethical obligation to do so. If there is a shared platform, who owns it and the data? Who would have access? Whether UN-owned, government-owned, or collectively-owned, the potential for real problems for clients may exist. A devastating example can be found in this story of UNHCR’s biometric registration program in Bangladesh.

Donor interest and priorities 

This plan collides with recent ECHO Guidance encouraging a single-agency approach, which makes cost efficiency the top priority in cash programming. However, there is considerable skepticism in the cash world and among some donors about the bottom line being only efficiency. The risk here is that the UN could create a monopoly, eliminating the value add that a diversity of actors with different specialties intrinsically has. In response to the ECHO guidelines when they were first released, the UN’s argument was that the system benefits from the “diversity and comparative advantage” of various agencies and that a single agency approach undermines coordination; yet the planned platform with its single agency approach seems contradictory to the common platform goal.

Efficiency versus effectiveness

As my colleagues in the IRC’s Best Use of Resources team like to note, if our only goal was cost per beneficiary, we’d deliver $1 million dollars to the families living closest to the office then go home! It is possible that, as the efficiency discussion becomes more nuanced, there will be an opportunity to test some of the assumptions around a single agency approach through other donors. The ECHO guidance mentioned above is aimed to support ECHO’s drive towards more cost-efficient programming. We do not currently have any data to validate the assumption that the single agency approach to delivering cash is more cost effective. Read a more detailed response regarding cost efficiency from the IRC here, by Caitlin Tulloch of the IRC’s Best Use of Resources Team.

Lastly, as a colleague noted, “It is difficult to envision how this will play out on the ground without being overly expensive and cumbersome.”

How is the IRC Responding?

To date the IRC has responded jointly and publicly through two groups.

The Collaborative Cash Delivery (CCD) Network: For the last two years the IRC has been participating in the CCD Network, a group of 15 peer NGOs looking to improve the efficiency of cash delivery. The 15 member organizations released a public statement, advocating that whatever is developed should follow these principles:

  1. People-centered: how will it affect beneficiaries? Vendors?
  2. Interoperable with all NGOs/agencies: avoid a “one size fits all” approach
  3. Appropriate flexibility: regarding delivery mechanisms, financial service providers, others
  4. Collectively governed with clear roles and responsibilities: it can’t be owned by a single UN agency
  5. Doesn’t replace structured coordination discussions: these should continue in parallel

CCD co-champions are also following up with the UN to get a seat at the table for initial discussions as well as discussing with the Red Cross Movement to align our positions for an even stronger voice. Further, CCD will also be re-approaching some key donors who might be interested in alternatives to the planned UN approach, with the CCD Network can provide.

the CALP Network: As an initial step towards open and constructive dialogue, the IRC participated in a call convened by the CALP Network, which over 30 participants joined, representing UN agencies, donors, NGOs and private sector actors. There was a brief on the history of the initiative by WFP, on behalf of WFP, UNICEF, UNHCR and UNICEF; all of which are CALP member agencies, which notably limits what this forum can reasonably say and do jointly. Participants discussed their aspirations and concerns in breakout groups, which included may of the same points the CCD had raised.

What’s next?

Returning to my three questions:

1. What problem are we trying to solve? It is essential that this be clearly defined to ensure that the solutions proposed are actually solving the problem identified, and that the solutions proposed are evidence-based.

2. Who will be involved? We need the voices of all stakeholders, from UN agencies and donors to vendors to the people we’re aiming to serve to ensure we hear the voices of the most vulnerable and that we can continue to meet the secondary objectives of cash programming, including strengthening of the local market.

3. Who “owns” cash? It is absolutely essential that the project of developing a common platform does not replace this discussion.

The IRC stay on top of discussions through the CCD Network and leverage the collective voice of our peer organizations as this initiative begins to move forward; and will continue building a strong evidence base for cash efficiency and effectiveness related to various operational models to contribute to the discussions.


Author Profile: Elizabeth Tromans is the Senior Technical Advisor for Cash and Emergencies at the International Rescue Committee in New York City. She has spent nearly a decade working in the humanitarian field working in both acute and protracted emergencies. Elizabeth previously worked with Catholic Relief Services where she was based in India, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Nigeria. She has led response efforts in major disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan and the Nepal Earthquake.