Cash transfer platforms in humanitarian contexts

Question

What is the rationale for using multipurpose cash transfers and single platforms? What is driving donor agency positions on these issues? What is the evidence that single cash platforms are more efficient and effective than multiple platforms? What are the (unforeseen) negative consequences of moving to a single platform?

Summary

As cash transfer programming (CTP) in humanitarian contexts has increased, so has the use of multipurpose (unconditional) cash transfers and the range of actors providing them. Use of different cash delivery platforms by different agencies can increase costs, inefficiency, and the risk of duplication and fraud, so ‘single cash platforms’ (the same delivery mechanism for cash transfers from different agencies and for different objectives) have been piloted.

The only example this review found of a wide-scale shift from the use of multiple platforms to a single cash platform was in Lebanon. At one point 30 different agencies were providing cash transfers to Syrian refugees in the country for 14 different objectives (Barder, 2017). In December 2014 WFP launched the OneCard scheme to enable beneficiaries to receive food vouchers and cash assistance through the same card. As of January 2016 a wide range of humanitarian actors were using OneCard, and its use had expanded to Jordan. Benefits of OneCard have included greater cost efficiency and coordination for humanitarian actors, and convenience for beneficiaries. Limitations have included some technical issues, and the fact that agencies such as UNHCR had to go through the platform manager (WFP) to access the service provider, which caused inefficiencies in communication and implementation. Some beneficiaries were worried they would lose all their benefits if the card got lost or damaged.

Experience of CTP from other contexts suggests that a single delivery mechanism is not always essential or appropriate, and that optimal delivery mechanisms will be context-specific. A review of inter-agency collaboration on CTP found that agencies were able to negotiate good deals with financial service providers simply through coordination, and did not need a single delivery mechanism. In Zimbabwe, practical constraints meant that a large-scale cash transfer programme had to use multiple financial service providers: no single FSP could provide enough coverage.

In December 2016 ECHO and DFID announced plans for a large cash transfer programme in Lebanon in which a single agency would manage cash transfers through a single platform, and a second agency would manage all other functions (including targeting, monitoring and evaluation). It therefore goes further than the ‘multiple agencies-single platform’ approach currently used by WFP, UNHCR and others in Lebanon, and has sparked debate about the relative merits of cost efficiency and scale versus diversity and inclusiveness. There are concerns that it could create monopolies in which the lead agency exerts undue influence, and that a ‘one size fits all’ approach could leave out vulnerable groups and stifle innovation.

The debate over the ECHO/DFID plan points to a difference in thinking between funders and implementers. While the former are focused on achieving efficiency and reducing duplication, the latter appear willing to go as far as increased coordination, but not to ceding their roles completely in favour of just one or two agencies (Bailey & Harvey, 2017).

The evidence on multipurpose cash transfers is limited; that on single platforms for cash transfer delivery even more so. Some argue that more evaluation is needed before large programmes are rolled out. This review certainly highlights the lack of research on these aspects of CTP. It also suggests the importance of being context-specific in identifying suitable approaches and delivery mechanisms for cash transfers.

Suggested citation

Idris, I. (2017). Cash Transfer Platforms in Humanitarian Contexts (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1416). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.