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60 Million Displaced People Need New Technology for Cash Transfers

By Guest Writer on August 28, 2015


There are more refugees and displaced people in the world now than ever before. Fortunately, a much-needed transformation is afoot among humanitarian agencies responding to these needs. Agencies including Oxfam, Mercy Corps and the World Food Program (WFP) are delivering less “stuff” (think food and shelter materials), preferring to give cash and vouchers instead.

Oxfam has spent over GBP 107 million on humanitarian cash programming, with a quarter of its humanitarian budget last fiscal year devoted to cash response. And WFP’s cash and voucher work has grown from just US$10 million in 2009 to US$837 million in 2014.

This is a trend we embrace. Think about it. If your neighborhood was wiped out by war or a flood, what would you prefer: a basket of food items and a tarp flown in from another country, or cash transferred directly to your bank account and a gift certificate to your local hardware store?

When markets are working (meaning vital items are available and people can reach the places they’re sold) cash and vouchers are empowering. They enable people to choose what they need to recover, rather than others making the decision for them. And since cash and vouchers are spent locally, they often offer a secondary benefit – aiding small businesses hurt by crises.

The Technology Challenge

From mobile money to prepaid cards and electronic vouchers (for example via SMS), new types of payments are enabling electronic cash transfers following a disaster or in the midst of war. But we – as a humanitarian and development community – are just beginning to leverage technology to deliver cash assistance more effectively and securely. Sprinklings of exciting initiatives exist:

But by and large, aid workers still largely rely on a clunky patchwork of paper and excel spreadsheets to register recipients, deliver cash assistance and track its delivery. Processes that could be easily automated and made more efficient by technology – like surveys and distributions – are all too often completed by hand.

Where are the simple tools to support this work?

Why is technology so underused in this realm? It is partially due to systemic challenges like the local nature of payment systems and their need to comply with “know your customer” or anti-terrorism legislation. Admittedly, there is also a degree of “technophobia” amongst staff who are reluctant to add an additional layer of uncertainty to their work. Also, it’s the complexity of aid delivery, as sending cash or vouchers is just one part of a larger process.

But the primary explanation for why technology is underutilized in cash and voucher programs is simple: there are too many products and tools that solve discrete pieces of the puzzle. And too few that address multiple steps of the process to actually make the work easier in the field.

Your Guide to Cash and Voucher Programs

Earlier this year, a group of 34 humanitarian and private sector actors came together in London to prioritize challenges and opportunities for technology in this sector. We thought that spelling out our technology needs – and sharing that information with companies and techies who could respond – might lead to more useful tools.


“Seeking Solutions: New Roles for Technology in Cash and Voucher Programs,” summarizes the group’s recommendations and lists the top eight implementation challenges.

It also provides a crash course on cash and voucher programs for people who may be unfamiliar with underlying processes. We hope that this “Inspiration Brief” will guide investments and innovations in this sector, ultimately improving our ability to meet today’s pressing humanitarian needs.

The workshop was hosted by the Electronic Cash Transfer Learning Action Network (ELAN), which connects businesses and humanitarians to improve e-transfers in emergencies. It is convened by Mercy Corps, with support from the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth. Founding members of the network include the Cash Learning Partnership, the International Rescue Committee, MasterCard, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Oxfam.

By Amy O’Donnell (Oxfam) and Sara Murray (Mercy Corps / ELAN)

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One Comment to “60 Million Displaced People Need New Technology for Cash Transfers”

  1. I just launched a service which lets you simply send plain euros to a German bank account and from there your money travels on to Tanzania or Kenya. You can give it a try for youself if you want: http://www.cryptocoinsea.net

    I know that this is not the comprehensive solution you are looking for but it might be a small piece in the big puzzle.