The global vision for cash as humanitarian aid

by Mike Adamson | British Red Cross Society - UK
Tuesday, 11 September 2018 11:20 GMT

Homes sit in ruins at Codrington on the island of Barbuda just after a month after Hurricane Irma struck the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, October 7, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We urgently need innovative solutions and new ways of working to address the scale of the challenges we face

In 2017, an estimated 201 million people in 134 countries were in need of international humanitarian assistance. Yet, 60 per cent of all assistance was channelled to just 10 countries. For many of these affected countries, the future looks very uncertain both for people in crisis and the organisations providing humanitarian assistance.

As an international community, we must acknowledge the need to change the way aid is delivered and rethink how the aid system works if we are to meet the growing levels of need. We urgently need innovative solutions, new ways of working and different forms of collaboration to address the scale of the humanitarian challenges we are facing.

Cash as the future of humanitarian aid

I was in the Caribbean at the beginning of the year, just months after the devastating Hurricane Irma. I witnessed first-hand the difference that cash assistance can make in enabling a more rapid response in an emergency. Importantly, cash assistance was empowering and dignified for people and beneficial to devastated island economies.

The evidence is compelling - cash assistance in the right context, and where appropriate, has the potential to be transformational in providing more timely, efficient, effective, and dignified humanitarian aid. And by helping to support the income of local traders and businesses, cash assistance offers an opportunity to boost local markets in times of crisis, enabling a community to help drive its own recovery.

It is not the panacea nor the single disruptor to change the way the aid system works. At a programme level, cash is another tool of humanitarian aid that can usefully complement other forms of assistance. However, cash assistance can help challenge the traditional models of assistance built on a system where the aid agency determines what people need in times of crisis and control the channels of assistance.

Localisation is key

As the Red Cross Movement, our approach is always to be as local as possible and as international as necessary. As part of our global initiative to harness the transformational power of cash, we are working hard to build capacity across the Movement to support local actors use cash in humanitarian response. Only then can we truly expect to see a humanitarian system that truly delivers on the concept of dignity, as well as sustainability and efficiency.

The British Red Cross’ first ever impact report, The Difference We Made in 2017, published later this week, highlights numerous examples where the Movement has used cash to support communities across the globe. For example, we supported 2,000 households with cash in response to hurricanes in the Caribbean in September last year and over 7,000 households in Nepal received cash to support agriculture and livestock. The Kenyan Red Cross has implemented 14 cash programmes focused on food insecurity, nutrition, shelter and livelihoods, reaching 254,000 households since 2011.

But we are also still learning about the potential for cash assistance both in our international and UK emergency response. In 2017, the UK experienced an unprecedented sequence of domestic emergencies, with a devastating impact on individuals, families and communities. As an organisation we provided a range of practical and emotional support and raised over £27 million for survivors and the bereaved. 

Yet it is important also to reflect and learn from where things could have been done better or differently. These tragic events highlighted the need for human-centred approaches to emergency response in the UK, for people to feel able to access the support they need quickly and feel safe and confident to do so, with their dignity preserved.

Cash assistance typifies the type of response which we should be providing. We know it is an established effective and efficient tool in our humanitarian response and we will continue to explore how we can use cash to respond to future disasters here in the UK.

Next steps

The international humanitarian community is recognising the transformational benefits of cash. 

An estimated $2.8billion of international humanitarian assistance was allocated to cash transfer programmes in 2016; while this is a positive increase from 2015, this is still less than 10 per cent of total aid. If we are serious about transforming aid, this must change.

We must continue to collaborate with others outside the aid sector to accelerate the use and scale of cash assistance and, perhaps most importantly, strengthen the key role played by local organisations, if we are to meet global humanitarian needs adequately and responsibly.

As part of its global initiative to drive the transformational power of cash as aid, the British Red Cross is hosting a Cash Conference in London on 13 September, in partnership with the IFRC and ICRC. Follow the conversation online with #RedCrossCash and join the live stream. The British Red Cross Cash Hub is also being launched to provide global cash resources for humanitarian cash practitioners worldwide.