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Cash 101: Cash and Voucher Assistance Explained

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When recipients of aid are in the driving seat – everything changes for the better – here’s why….

4 November 2020 — By Ruth McCormack


Imagine living under a government with largely benevolent intentions which believes itself to be a democracy and wants to do better. However, at the same time they fail to institute effective mechanisms for citizen participation in decision-making and have a habit of making selective use of the data they have about the wishes of their citizens. It would likely feel worse though if you didn’t even get the occasional vote, but instead someone just showed up on your doorstep, asked you what you needed from a range of tick box items, then left again without making it clear if they’re coming back or how you can contact them. Sometime later they return and tell you the government’s decided what you need and provide instructions on where to find it, but fail to check if you’re able to get there, leaving only a number to text any complaints or feedback to, from which you may or may not receive a response.

The above analogy, although a little stretched, came to mind when thinking of the current aid system in which agencies and donors ultimately decide which needs to prioritize, and how to address them.

The imperative to put the needs and preferences of crisis-affected people at the centre of humanitarian response is a repeated refrain in the State of the World’s Cash 2020 (SOWC2020). Putting recipients in the driving seat of humanitarian action depends on a substantial shift in decision-making power from agencies to recipients. But while the need for this is widely accepted in principle by many humanitarian actors, transforming it into a programming reality is proving to be much more challenging.

Cash has an important role to play in all this as it puts decision making on how to use the assistance received where it should be, in the hands of crisis affected people themselves. This is the single most critical change to humanitarian aid that cash brings about. Scaling up the use of cash should mean more power to recipients to determine how to manage the resources available to them.

But recipients having the power to choose is only the first step. Increasing the use of cash assistance must though go hand in hand with an approach that puts crisis-affected people in a central and influential role in the design and monitoring of humanitarian assistance.

When recipients are in the driving seat – everything changes for the better – here’s why:

  1. Because it leads to better programme design, based on recipient perspectives rather than assumptions
This report by Key Aid Consulting explored how design-related decisions influence the value for money of cash assistance.

We need greater focus on the role cash and voucher assistance (CVA) can and should play in empowering recipients – not only in maximising choice in the use of assistance, but also in assessing and adjusting critical design components such as delivery options from a user perspective. Recent research by Key Aid into the value for money of cash assistance reveals that

when we make assumptions about the preferences and expectations of recipients we often get it wrong.

This may happen when, for example, assumptions about the application of evidence are transported from one place to another. Clearly this should not imply that there isn’t significant value in referencing wider learning, but as research often shows, context is queen. It is clear that the quality of CVA can be improved by actively incorporating recipient perspectives from the start when designing programmes and operational models. This would allow, for example, access challenges to be identified (e.g. familiarity with digital payments may be low) and enable better programme design from the outset, which has to be more effective and equitable than trying to build in remedial action later.

  1. Because recipient perceptions of ‘value for money’ and ‘quality’ are not the same as agencies’ and donors’

The pursuit of value for money, based on the ‘4 Es’ of economy, efficiency, effectiveness, and equity, is an understandable preoccupation in humanitarian aid as levels of need increasingly outstrip the funds available. When there is pressure to do more with less funding, this can lead to more emphasis being placed on the economy and efficiency components, but it is important to remember that cheap programmes are not necessarily those which create value. Critically Key Aid’s research found that “looking at value for money from an end-user perspective leads to an entirely different understanding” of programmes as compared to that of operational agencies and donors. The value of CVA from a recipient’s perspective is primarily based on the extent to which the assistance meets their needs, determined by transfer size relative to needs, and the predictability and timeliness of delivery. Being aware of these priorities on the recipient side should play an essential role in weighing up design decisions and making operational and programme adjustments when needed.

  1. Because acting on feedback (rather than just collecting it) is the ultimate driver of quality

Reflecting on why humanitarian agencies haven’t so far systematically incorporated recipient feedback into their programming, Samuel Kimeu (@SamuelKimeu), Executive Director of Africa’s Voices noted that, “most feedback exercises are extractive. They take but they don’t give. They don’t build trust and engagement…and are geared mostly towards upwards accountability, especially to donors.”

Many of the practitioners consulted for the SOWC2020 stressed the importance of gathering recipient feedback more systematically, including at response level, and sharing it transparently as a benchmark for quality and progress. However, while the importance of this is increasingly recognised, there is limited evidence of feedback being used to drive significant programmatic change. This is partly an issue of some data being collected and not utilised, and partly an issue of whether the right information is being collected, and how.

The important work of Ground Truth Solutions in collecting and analysing beneficiary perspectives on CVA, including through the Cash Barometer and user journeys, is rightfully frequently cited in discussions on recipient perspectives and improving accountability. However, the extent to which this type of data collection is still the preserve of a specialist organisation tells us something of just how far we still are from systematic integration. Initiatives like the Cash Barometer will only be fully effective when agencies commit to acting on the feedback generated.

Really putting recipients in the driving seat of humanitarian programming will require collective action across the system to achieve broad shifts in mindsets and ways of working, driven by multiple individual and organisational acts of will. This is likely to be a gradual process, but one we hope we’ll see notable progress towards by the time the next iteration of the State of the World’s Cash is published.


Cash 101: Cash and Voucher Assistance Explained

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