Kirsty Marrins: How digital is revolutionising humanitarian aid

Giving cash can, paradoxically, do good while saving charities money

Kirsty Marrins
Kirsty Marrins

War. Conflict. Hurricanes. Drought. Floods. These are the challenges currently facing the humanitarian sector and the demand for aid is outweighing what can actually be provided. With a shortfall of $15bn ($11.4bn) in global aid budgets, the sector needs to start closing the gap by ensuring that aid is delivered in the most efficient and effective way. Technology is helping to achieve this.

Charities such as the British Red Cross, Oxfam and Unicef are increasingly using cash transfers as part of their emergency response efforts. The giving of cash in emergencies is not new. In fact, the first documented giving of cash in this way by the Red Cross dates back to the late 19th century. What’s new is how it’s being delivered – through technology. It sounds paradoxical, but giving cash is actually saving these charities money.

Not only does giving cash help to reach more people at less cost, it offers the recipients greater choice and dignity. It’s also better for the recovery of communities. Instead of bringing in truckloads of overseas goods, giving cash enables people to buy goods directly from their local shops or marketplaces, thereby boosting local economies. It also puts power back into people’s hands by giving them choice over what they buy.

M-pesa has been revolutionising mobile payments in Kenya since 2007 – currently almost half of the country’s GDP is processed through M-pesa. Nine out of ten Kenyans have access to mobile payments, so it is no wonder that humanitarian organisations are finding this a very effective and efficient way to deliver aid, particularly in remote areas of the country, which are difficult to access.

In villages severely affected by the drought in Kenya last year, the Kenya Red Cross provided cash assistance through M-pesa’s mobile money service. They gave struggling families a monthly cash payment of 3,000 Kenyan shillings (£22.50) so that they could purchase essential items.

The Red Cross calculates that it has given mobile cash payments to more than 41,000 people in 13 counties affected by drought. Further research shows that families receiving mobile cash are eating more often and more than 60 per cent of families say they can now afford three or more meals a day, compared with 20 per cent before the cash transfer initiative began.

But it’s not just about food. Families have also used the cash to cover essentials such as education and healthcare. Cash empowers people to make their own decisions about what they need, whether that’s food, shelter or medicine. The programme has proved so successful that there is ambition to expand to more African countries.

But what exactly is the impact of cash assistance through technology? Research shows that 18 per cent more people could have been helped in Ecuador, Niger, Uganda and Yemen if cash grants were given instead of food aid. A recent study found that for every $150 (£114) of financial aid given to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, this generated more than double the amount in benefits to the local economy.

David Peppiatt, director of cash assistance at the British Red Cross, says: "Giving cash through technology is a gamechanger for the way that humanitarian aid is delivered. We want to harness new technology in order to reach more people at scale and with greater effect, but we recognise that we need to work more in collaboration with local and national partners, and with financial service providers that are experts in areas that we are not.

"For almost 150 years, the Red Cross has been a major player in delivering aid, so change is difficult, but we are determined to collaborate more, harness the potential of digital and set the standard."

In Jordan the giving of cash through using biometrics is currently being piloted. People simply go to an ATM, where their retina is scanned and cash is dispensed. This technology is helping to create digital identities.

There are, of course, important questions to answer about digital identities in insecure environments and how to manage risks concerning data protection to ensure the safety of those in need. Humanitarian aid agencies need to have robust procedures and processes in place to make sure that personal data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

The potential of digital in helping to deliver aid and giving people more choice and dignity is hugely exciting, and an area that I’m definitely going to follow with interest.

Kirsty Marrins is a digital communications consultant and a trustee of the Small Charities Coalition. She is currently interim social media manager at the British Red Cross

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