Cash is hot. Everyone’s talking about it. If you’re in aid, but not doing cash, well frankly, what are you doing? You’re so 1980’s. I’m a huge fan of cash programming in response to disasters, but believe it needs to be unleashed.
While cash programming is now ‘acceptable’, its acceptability tends to sit within tight boundaries – cash for work, cash vouchers, conditional cash grants, and unconditional cash grants (although as some colleagues pointed out, it’s likely impossible to truly have unconditional cash grants, but perhaps that’s just semantics).
Permit me to tell a short story about the early day of electric and hydrogen cars. Some of the backers of Hydrogen cars were existing car companies, so their starting point was the existing combustion engine. So they created the hydrogen fuel cell to generate power. Some of the original backers of the electric car were from silicon valley, so when they needed something to generate power, they wired together lots of laptop batteries! Each group was influenced by their worldviews, their frameworks, however those wiring together laptop batteries had much more inherent freedom to re-imagine the car.
Most cash programming is designed like the hydrogen car. Most of the people designing and implementing cash programmes have a background in humanitarian aid treating it either as its own sector or as a ‘cross-cutting theme’ to be mainstreamed, although this is rare. But even this has not yet fundamentally shifted our operations and approach.
We need to invite others (from the electric camp) to help us re-imagine. Perhaps our electric equivalent is digital currencies – the bitcoins of the world. Stellar is a fascinating one to watch – so how do we bring Stellar into the Cash and Learning Partnership and into our Cash Cluster meetings and strategies? They are keenly interested in exploring the use of digital currencies for use in emergencies where the local currency is volatile, or in countries where banks are not safe?
But even from our starting point, we can do more to push the envelope. A simple, not too stretching, idea would be implement cash-for-information thinking into our operations.
After every disaster, we rely on some form of needs assessment to be done often before we can do any tangible response action. Thankfully, we have seen a large increase in organisations moving from paper to digital assessments, but this is still viewed by some as risky. Given that many organisations work prior to disasters with the same communities affected by the disaster and therefore have, or should have, some form of relationship with them, why don’t we have their phone numbers? Why don’t we immediately text them with two questions – ‘are you and your family alive?’ and ‘what are your top three needs right now?’. We ask these questions when we eventually get to them to do the assessment, so why do we wait? And after receiving their response, why don’t we send them $20 or $50 telling them to spend the money however they want? It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a symbol, a thank you for responding to our questions, and likely an incentive. Plus, these SMS messages can be sent from anywhere using platforms like FrontlineCloud or other like systems. Within minutes of a disaster, agencies can have information about basic needs, by location, and have ‘started’ some basic distributions.
Aid agencies are wedded to their manufacturing organisational models in the modern day connection economy and therefore are riding the downward wave of irrelevance. Through the changes in technology, there is a convergence of information and accountability that demands greater choice be given to those affected by disasters and for those helping to be held to higher standards. People know more, expect more, and want to be treated with dignity, which requires organisations to change.
Some of what is below first appeared in a guest blog I wrote for the Cash and Learning Partnership earlier this year.