Cash transfers to the needy, not rations, way forward

Greater funds accountability for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially within the third world where corruption levels are high, will be a key success factor in realising set milestones.

The recent advent of cash transfer programmes such as Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP) that targets Turkana, Mandera, Wajir and Marsabit, raises the key question of whether to utilise intermediary implementing organisations or if it is more effective to directly transfer cash to the target populations.

Recent media reports reveal the bulk of funds raised by development agencies for the vulnerable are instead channelled towards attractive perks and hefty salaries. The unfortunate scenario is that the vulnerable and poor people, in whose name the millions of dollars are raised, continue to languish in poverty upon completion of the project.

In the last decade, I was deployed to most major disasters across the continent, ranging from the food crisis at the Horn of Africa, conflict-riddled Goma in eastern DRC, war torn Darfur, political conflict in South Sudan and later the severe food crisis in West Africa.

I have participated in major relief responses in these areas that had long winding queues of exhausted, starving people (many of them children), patiently lining up for food hand-outs and other relief rations from humanitarian organisations. That was then.

Unlike a decade ago when the world stood in solidarity with the affected after a disaster and raised millions of dollars for Darfur, Eastern DRC food crises or displacement of people following floods, the situation today is different. Appeals for the Central Africa Republic (CAR) or Syria are not attracting commensurate resources.

But the hand-outs’ approach has been criticised by development theorists, as it strengthens the argument of the relief support creating dependency.

There have been widely reported cases of relief food being sold at local markets, or being stolen by avaricious administrators. The Head of the Department for International Development (DFID) in Kenya, Ms Lisa Philips, recently paid glowing tribute to the cash transfer approach, saying it empowers recipients and restores their dignity.

DFID, the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) and Equity bank are, through the Ministry of Devolution, supporting implementation of HSNP , which has disbursed over Sh.16 billion to four counties. Rampant cases of corruption and pilfering of public resources within the counties does not augur well for the concept of distribution of ‘free’ cash.

The nature of humanitarian crises is changing. More people are in need, and for longer periods. Today’s emergencies, both man-made and natural, are putting the humanitarian system under severe strain. There is need for urgent investment in new approaches to protect the lives and dignity of those affected and to ensure aid is spent as efficiently as possible.

A recent report by the Centre for Global Development (ODI) titled Doing Cash Different reveals that giving aid directly in the form of cash is often a highly effective way to reduce suffering and to make limited humanitarian aid budgets go further. The humanitarian community should give more aid as cash, and make cash central to future emergency response planning. Moving to a coordinated system of cash transfers is also an opportunity for broader reform of the humanitarian system, so that aid providers of the future work in a more complementary way to maximise their impact.

Unless a conscious decision is made to do things differently, the humanitarian system will not increase the use of cash transfers as much as it should, or take advantage of this opportunity for reform. In the report, ODI makes 12 recommendations that will chart the next steps for donors, governments and humanitarian agencies.

They include: Give more unconditional cash transfers. The questions should always be asked: ‘why not cash?’ and ‘if not now, when?’ Invest in readiness for cash transfers in contingency planning and preparedness.Measure how much aid is provided as cash transfers and explicitly distinguish this from vouchers and in-kind aid. Systematically analyse and benchmark other humanitarian responses against cash transfers. Leverage cash transfers to link humanitarian assistance to longer-term development and social protection systems.Capitalise on the private sector’s expertise in delivering payments.Where possible, deliver cash digitally and in a manner that furthers financial inclusion.Improve aid agencies’ data security, privacy systems and compliance with financial regulations.Improve coordination of cash transfers within the existing system.Implement cash programmes that are large-scale, coherent and unconditional, allowing for economies of scale, competition and avoiding duplication.Wherever possible, make humanitarian cash transfers central to humanitarian crisis response as a primary component of Strategic Response Plans, complemented by in-kind assistance if necessary.Finance the delivery of humanitarian cash transfers separately from assessment, targeting and monitoring.