The IRC’s shift to digital humanitarian assistance

Guest Contributor: Elizabeth Tromans, IRC

Today marks Day 3 of Cash Week and the launch of our latest GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation (M4H) research focusing on the International Rescue Committee’s shift to digital humanitarian assistance, specifically for cash and voucher assistance (CVA).

Read the report

Every year, millions of dollars in cash assistance are being delivered via mobile money, supplanting traditional delivery methods. The case study explores the IRC’s experience partnering with mobile network operators (MNOs) in six countries, and the experiences of clients who receive cash assistance via mobile money.

To unpack our findings further, we spoke to Elizabeth Tromans, Senior Technical Advisor, Cash and Emergencies, about IRC’s transition to digital cash assistance.

GSMA: The IRC made a bold commitment in 2015 to deliver 25 per cent of material assistance in cash by 2020, and a secondary goal to increase the use of digital payments. Now, four years later, the IRC has met its primary target and is delivering cash assistance digitally in over a third of the countries where it operates. Why did IRC decide to make this shift in the first place?

IRC: “We made this commitment because cash assistance makes sense. Cash is effective; we know that cash transfers are proven to meet humanitarian objectives for a range of outcomes. It provides choice, dignity, and flexibility which empowers crisis-affected people. It is efficient; cash assistance costs less to deliver than in-kind assistance. Lastly, cash has a multiplier effect; every dollar spent on cash assistance can generate an additional two dollars of economic activity in local markets. It supports local communities to become more economically self-sufficient, reducing dependence on aid. Extra economic activity can help create jobs and consumption for the entire community.”

GSMA: What were the biggest changes that the IRC had to make as an organisation to meet these ambitions?

IRC: “Making an explicit strategy and a public commitment to use a ‘Cash First’ approach, and using CVA everywhere it was appropriate and feasible, was an important step in ensuring that our ambitions to increase the use of CVA would get the appropriate level of attention. We increased the amount of technical assistance available at the HQ-level, made developing a cash vision statement a required part of the strategy action plans that every country programme develops and reports on annually, and reviewed internal operational procedures to make adaptations where necessary to facilitate speedy, compliant delivery of cash assistance.”

GSMA: What have been the key success factors when working with MNOs?

IRC: “In the last financial year, the IRC has worked with nine mobile network operators in eight countries. It may go without saying, but the key success factor is when there is a mutual benefit between IRC and an MNO partner, i.e. our cash assistance is delivered in a timely, respectful, transparent manner to the intended recipients in full; and the MNO has a potential new customer base in the long-term, not only during the life of the project. We’ve heard our Financial Service Provider partners, including MNOs, loud and clear when they’ve called for clear guidelines on what we need: numbers, locations, amounts, timing, and beneficiary information; as well as their call for one, consistent point of contact within IRC. We try to provide these things.”

GSMA: What have some of your main pain points been in working with MNOs, and how is the IRC working to overcome these?

IRC: “One key challenge is that it can take us quite a while internally to contract new MNOs, as well as other Financial Service Provider partners. We’re reviewing our operational procedures and the timeline from some past processes to see where the bottlenecks occur. We have also put in place a Global Payment Toolbox with prepositioned service agreements with some FSPs so that where there isn’t a local partnership solution readily available, we can use one of our global agreements to still respond quickly. Another challenge has been in working with partners that have sufficient reach in the remote and challenging locations where we work, and that those partners have sufficient liquidity to reach all the needs. To overcome this, we’ve been trying to plan ahead as much  as possible for distributions to give MNO partners adequate time to prepare.”

GSMA: One of the IRC’s key motivations for using digital payments was to “effect better outcomes for clients.” As part of this research, we conducted Focus Group Discussions to understand more about clients’ experiences (good and bad!) of mobile money enabled cash assistance. We categorised the main benefits into five areas: improved speed and convenience, security, discretion, financial planning and saving, continued use of mobile money and other mobile services. How specifically did the IRC’s programming contribute to these benefits? 

IRC: “In a few cases, such as IRC Burundi, the IRC’s mobile money-enabled CVA program was the first time some clients had owned a phone. IRC’s programme included instructions on how to use the phone. Congolese refugees in Bujumbura noted that they began taking advantage of other offers from the MNO, including on selling extra phone credit to make money. We hope that we, with MNOs, can increase the amount of training for cash recipients in the future to maximise potential impact of mobile money. Additionally, in recent years the IRC has invested more resources in improving accountability systems for improved communication with affected communities. As we know from on-going programme monitoring and end of project evaluations, we’re not perfect; but good communication with recipients about cash transfers – the amount, duration, frequency – definitely helps us realise these benefits.”

GSMA: Our case study offers humanitarian organisations a number of considerations (which have emerged from IRC’s experience) split into three categories: changing internal processes; creating long-term, shared value partnerships with MNOs; and ensuring that new technologies meet the needs of recipients. What steps is the IRC continuing to take to achieve a digital humanitarian future?

IRC: “Our internal processes have received an overhaul and we have new standard operating procedures. We’re still fine tuning a few other operational procedure issues. All of our new technologies are piloted on a small scale first and we ensure that recipient preference is the top consideration. We know there is untapped potential for further financial inclusion in our cash assistance programmes as well, and we want to focus on this more in the coming year. The Economic Recovery and Development technical unit at the IRC is working on an updated financial inclusion strategy, so watch this space!”

GSMA: We hope that the IRC’s experiences over the past few years, as documented in the case study, can benefit the broader humanitarian sector and mobile industry as they navigate their own digitisation journeys. We end the case study with some tough questions on the future of mobile money-enabled CVA. For humanitarian organisations that share a vision of digitising and scaling up cash assistance to meet the needs of crisis-affected populations, answering these questions will be vital. Through our GSMA M4H work, we are supporting our partners to achieve an equitable digital humanitarian future. To find out more, visit our website or reach out: m4h@gsma.com.

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