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What I learned at the CALP Network’s Celebrating Digital Humanitarian Cash Event

26 November 2018 — By Steph Roberson

This workshop was a triumphant but sad goodbye to ELAN, the Electronic Cash Transfer Learning Action Network. This was their closing event after four years of hard work, and they leave behind a rather magnificent legacy of tools, guidance, learning, webinars, resources and case studies on how to best engage with digital payment mechanisms.

So what did I learn? Well, firstly that Mastercard have a Financial Inclusion Lab in Nairobi, which I shall now go away and read about, as it sounded terribly exciting.

Secondly, we had a chance to hear from several private sector representatives from various financial service providers (FSPs), and got to hear what they really think about NGOs. Which was genuinely fascinating – here are the highlights:

What do private sector financial service providers think about us?

  • Since the formation of ELAN four years ago, there has been a huge improvement in the level of communication and understanding between NGOs and the private sector, but there is still a long way to go if we want to work together effectively. NGOs still don’t fully trust private sector actors to deliver to our core humanitarian principles, and they are baffled at why we expect them to.
  • NGO tender processes, donor reporting and compliance requirements are complicated and confusing to most private sector actors. In some cases, they might have even designed different tech solutions had they understood this better from the outset.
  • NGOs often ask Tech companies for solutions that are more complicated than they need to be, when often a much simpler solution would achieve the same result.
  • Financial Service Providers (FSPs) feel that we are asking them to do things beyond their remit – such as handle the end-to-end delivery of digital cash, at the last mile, at scale. NGOs live in a world where we use terminology like “last mile solutions”, which means nothing to the private sector. They feel ill-equipped to deal with this and it really puts them off working with us. As one panel member politely put it, “this is like asking a fish to ride a bicycle”

A couple of other interesting reflections on the NGO-FSP relationship were that:

  • NGOs worry that they should be developing more expertise in financial processes, and aren’t clear how much expertise should be in-house and how much should be outsourced to the private sector. Where should we draw that line?
  • FSPs don’t really care what currencies we have to report in. As one panel member put it, “There is only one global currency, and that is US dollars. It doesn’t matter what currencies you are using at either end of the process, but we are making guarantees to an intermediary bank which has to be backed up in US dollars. Often the changes in exchange rates mean that we might lose out if transactions are not done in USD.”
  • As NGOs we pride ourselves in accountability mechanisms, hotlines, and other feedback options, but we also know that too often we fail to close the feedback loop. One NGO panel member described a specific country programme where the FSP employees were horrified at the way the NGO managed their customer service, and were shocked to discover that beneficiaries could not get through to the NGO hotline, or did not hear back with responses to their complaints in a timely manner. The same beneficiaries who went to the FSP office with a complaint would be given coffee and reassured that they would do everything possible to resolve their complaint and they would not leave until it was resolved. The NGO simply didn’t have the time, money or resources to staff the hotline desk well enough. It was an interesting reflection that although not all FSPs are created equal, we still might be able to learn a thing or two from the private sector about customer service[1].

What interesting solutions were offered?

  • Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) recently collaborated (informally) in their procurement of global framework agreements, with DRC applying NRC’s tender results to its internal process. The argument is that if one agency has already done all of the work of the tendering, there must be a way to leverage that process and use that data rather than repeating the process all over again.
  • Better inductions for FSPs on donor compliance and reporting requirements are essential at the outset, (which ELAN have been advocating for), and where possible, agencies need to join together for tendering instead of 8 agencies doing separate tenders looking for the same digital solution in the same crisis.
  • The Private sector would love to see a dedicated project manager to be their main focal point within the agency to help smooth out issues and communications

Data Protection

  • Data protection in emergencies is complex when engaging with financial service providers. Contracting these services simply cannot be compared to procuring in-kind goods in terms of the clauses that need to be added to contracts.
  • Biometric data is becoming increasingly common, and is embraced by some agencies and it terrifies others.

Ultimately we must remember that data is power, and the power that we wield over vulnerable communities must be managed with dignity and care. We should always aim to assess how our technological solutions will impact on people’s rights to privacy, and aim to collect as little data as possible – and this may mean that sometimes we deliberately choose lower-tech solutions for cash delivery.

What became clear at this workshop is that data protection needs to be brought out of the realm of the NGO’s legal department and made clear and understandable to our logisticians, procurement officers and programme staff, and even more importantly, to the beneficiaries who are giving “informed” consent.

One excellent suggestion from the group was that when engaging with a financial service provider, ask them how they would summarise their terms and conditions in 5 easy bullet points. If they cannot translate their own legal jargon into plain English, then you can assume we will not be able to truly gain informed consent from beneficiaries.

Oxfam’s Responsible Data Policy also has some useful guidance for managing this issue as well.

Blockchain – the Marmite of digital currencies

Some agencies have embraced new technologies such as blockchain as ways to reduce fraud and corruption and innovate digital payments, while others hold serious reservations about both the environmental impacts of some digital/cryptocurrencies such as BitCoin, as well as a fear we may be so quick to jump on the innovation bandwagon that we risk testing out new technology on vulnerable populations. Affected communities have been through enough and we need to be very careful about treating them as guinea pigs in our experiments with new technology, no matter how exciting it may be.

There was much, much more that was discussed and debated throughout the day, including a fascinating discussion of beneficiary user journeys with different technologies, (and I believe there will be a report coming soon about that) but there isn’t time to go into everything in one blog. However I suppose my main takeaway from the day is just how much there is to learn and engage with in terms of digital technology and cash. There is so much potential for innovation, but also potential for new risks which need to be carefully considered and managed.



Steph RobersonAuthor Profile: Steph Roberson is a Cash Adviser in Oxfam’s Global Humanitarian Team. Steph has previously worked at the Cash Learning Partnership, and has over 5 years of experience of humanitarian cash and voucher programming, including in the 2013 Philippines Typhoon Haiyan response, and in Iraq in 2015, during which time she co-authored the CLARA: Designing safer livelihoods programs in Iraq report.


[1] CGAP Recently developed a “Voice of the Customer Toolkit” to support FSPs in better feedback loops.