The Francophone Experience: IRC’s shift to digital humanitarian assistance

Lire ce blog en français

As network coverage and mobile phone ownership around the world soars, mobile technology is increasingly being used to deliver information and services to people in need. Humanitarian organisations have begun to take advantage of this to reach vulnerable and displaced people with lifesaving aid. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is one such organisation. In 2015, IRC committed to providing at least 25% of its assistance through direct cash aid, and to increasingly deliver it through digital mechanisms.

Last month, the GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation (M4H) programme published a case study examining how the IRC made this transition, focusing in particular on the use of mobile money. This blog highlights lessons drawn from three francophone African country offices: Cameroon, Burundi and Chad. By drawing attention to these countries’ unique experiences, M4H hopes to share lessons that can help other humanitarian organisations make this transition.

Read the full report Read the blog on the report

The three country offices had varying experiences and degrees of success with their transition to mobile money enabled cash and voucher assistance (CVA). The IRC Chad office ultimately determined that mobile money was not the ideal delivery mechanism, and has since transitioned towards the exclusive use of e-vouchers and hawalas. The IRC Cameroon office also faced some significant challenges, but was able to incorporate lessons from these challenges into current programming. Meanwhile, in Burundi, IRC’s partnership with Econet Leo has been overwhelmingly positive, leading to benefits for recipients of programming. Below are several lessons that can be drawn from the francophone countries included in the report.

  1. Building partnerships with MNOs

In Burundi, one of the success factors was IRC’s partnership with Econet’s Cassava Fintech Burundi, who actively pursued the humanitarian sector as a business opportunity. Because Econet was genuinely invested in serving the recipients of IRC’s programming as customers, they went above and beyond what IRC expected. For instance, Econet actively participated in the training and registration of clients, helping to build digital literacy and ensuring that issues were resolved quickly.

“Econet tried to please us as a partner, we were bringing them business. They treated beneficiaries as clients. In Burundi, the humanitarian sector is large and the rest of the economy is weak so Econet sees this as one of the biggest market opportunities for them.” – Former ERD Coordinator, IRC Burundi

When using a new technology, like mobile money, especially in areas with less infrastructure and low literacy populations, issues are bound to arise. These include both technical issues, like blocked accounts, and operational issues, like lack of liquidity. Finding a partner that is prepared to not only think through and plan for these challenges properly, but also respond to issues promptly and thoroughly, is essential.

In Chad, this was one of the challenges that IRC faced when working with Tigo. Though Tigo was responsive when challenges arose, and improved over the course of the programme, there were some communication issues with the operations in the field leading to miscommunication and delays in addressing the difficulties. Intermittent mobile connectivity, lack of available liquidity and blocked accounts and SIMs ultimately led to poor user experiences.

  1. Know Your Customer challenges

In many countries, to register for a SIM card and for a mobile money account, identity documentation is required. This can pose problems for some refugees, who may not have the requisite documents in their new countries. IRC faced this problem in Cameroon, where some of their most vulnerable clients did not have required identity documents. To address this, IRC created an alternate process with authorities – aid recipients could choose to nominate someone in their community to receive the transfer on their behalf.  To make the process official, a document was signed in the presence of the local authority and an IRC representative outlining the agreement to register with Orange.

While these types of workarounds can provide temporary solutions – ideally regulators can be convinced to allow alternative forms of ID to be used for SIM registration. In Burundi, the humanitarian sector successfully worked with MNOs to advocate the regulator to recognise official refugee attestation documents for this purpose. This solution can have wider reaching impacts, giving refugees more broadly, not just recipients of a specific mobile-enabled programme, access to mobile technology.

  1. Reviewing and Documenting Challenges

As challenges inevitably arise through programme implementation, it is important to document them so that lessons can be shared across the organisation and avoided in the future. In Cameroon, through its first partnership with Orange, IRC realised additional technical requirements that they needed from an MNO partner moving forward, such as the ability the block lost or stolen SIMs and ensuring that staff is present in the region to help manage difficulties in person. They were able to document these and, when they contracted MTN as a second partner, were able to integrate these requirements into the contract.

Likewise, in Chad, at the conclusion of their partnership with Tigo, IRC invited recipients, IRC staff and Tigo staff to participate in a 360-degree review. Strengths and weaknesses from all perspectives were documented. While IRC Chad has decided to transition away from mobile money for the time being, these lessons are recorded for the future, if the mobile money environment develops.

The full case study provides a more comprehensive look at the lessons learned from across all six country offices – Jordan, Pakistan, Burundi, Chad, Cameroon and Kenya – as well as HQ. It includes considerations for MNOs and humanitarian organisations making this transition. These include lessons for humanitarian organisations’ internal processes, how to partner with MNOs and how to ensure clients are benefitting from the full advantages mobile money and mobile technology can offer them.

Related publications
This initiative is currently funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.
Donor logos