Issue 54 - Article 5

Institutionalising cash transfer programming

May 24, 2012
Rosie Jackson, Save the Children UK, and Nupur Kukrety, Oxfam GB
A beneficiary of Oxfam's emergency cash transfer program in Loruth, Turkana

The significant growth in cash transfers in emergencies in the past decade has presented a number of challenges for policy-makers and practitioners in the humanitarian sector. Cash transfer programming is now an accepted tool in almost every emergency response. Guidelines, evaluations and research have addressed concerns around cash transfers, such as corruption and insecurity, and have increased awareness that cash has different, but not necessarily greater, risks than in-kind assistance. Donor policy changes and developments have supported more flexible funding for cash transfer programming and the development of better risk management systems and procedures. The experience of a large number of NGOs, local governments, UN agencies and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) has increased confidence in the delivery of cash transfers in a range of contexts. The Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) and similar initiatives have provided training, collated and disseminated learning from pilot approaches, undertaken research in key areas and provided forums for agencies to share practice.

For Save the Children and Oxfam, the process of institutionalising cash transfer programming started with staff training. However, it soon became apparent that training alone was not enough, and that addressing internal barriers to implementing cash transfers was equally important. Our strategies for institutionalising cash transfer programming focused on the following areas: skills development, tools and procedures and preparedness.

Skills development

Ensuring that we have the capacity to deliver cash transfer programming requires not only developing skills within technical teams, but also among country office managers and emergency team leaders, logisticians and finance staff. Poor engagement with these staff categories has often undermined the timeliness, efficiency and appropriateness of cash transfer programming because cash interventions were designed by technical staff with limited knowledge of finance and logistics systems and procedures. This problem was compounded by limited understanding of cash transfer programmes among management, logistics and finance teams. As a result, people lacked the confidence to make programming decisions.

Save the Children and Oxfam have developed training materials to meet the specific needs of key staff, including management, logistics and finance personnel. We have also promoted cash transfer programming in sectors where cash responses are less common, such as shelter and water and sanitation. The impact of this training is two-fold: first, staff members have the opportunity to learn about the entire process of cash transfer programming, from decision-making through to implementation; and second, participants are able to practice making operational decisions with the active involvement of finance, management and technical staff. For both agencies, training has included staff across all regions, agency members and affiliates. This training forms the backbone of the institutionalisation process.

Tools and procedures

A number of good guidelines and tools for cash programming are available. The Sphere Handbook outlines minimum standards and there are also a large number of evaluations that document lessons learned. Save the Children and Oxfam have used these materials to adapt existing tools and procedures.

As Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are usually agency-specific and focused on specific technical areas, Save the Children and Oxfam are producing their own SOPs for cash programming. These outline the process for developing cash transfer projects throughout the project cycle, from emergency preparedness and assessments to key aspects that must be considered in programme design, implementation and evaluation. The Cash SOPs are designed to complement minimum standards outlined in sector-specific programme guidance. Although each agency is producing its own SOPs and we are at different stages in the process, they have agreed to share information on organisational procedures, resources and approaches throughout the development process.

Oxfam developed specific finance guidelines, which are being rolled out this year through training and dissemination. The guidelines were developed by finance and food security and livelihoods staff. They include understanding cash transfer modalities, payment mechanisms and delivery instruments; tasks and areas of cooperation with business services; and financial controls, including security and the use of armed guards. The process includes finance staff in programming decisions, while also allowing programme staff to benefit from their specialised skills. In addition, Oxfam is developing programme quality guidelines for staff across all its affiliates. Once finalised, these guidelines will act as minimum standards for all cash transfer responses by Oxfam staff and partners.

Save the Children has focused on training finance staff on analysing and mitigating risks associated with cash transfer programming. This work has also informed the development of the Cash SOPs, which was undertaken by logistics, operations, finance and food security and livelihoods teams and tested with staff from other sectors. The SOPs include a standard risk and cash feasibility assessment. Over the coming year work will be undertaken to integrate cash transfer programming into the guidance and procedures for other key thematic and operational areas. For example, in 2012 the assessment of cash feasibility and risk analysis will be integrated into Save the Children’s standard guidelines for emergency preparedness planning.


Ensuring that country offices are prepared ahead of time to undertake cash responses is a key priority. Rolling out new tools and practices once an emergency response is already underway can cause delays and reduce efficiency. Country offices are encouraged to share their experiences with undertaking cash transfer programming, particularly related to building relationships and undertaking negotiations with financial institutions. Each country office engaged in the institutionalisation process has a cash focal point who receives quarterly updates from head office on progress. This also enables communications flow between offices.

Save the Children has developed a Cash Emergency Preparedness process, which was piloted in four country programmes in 2011. This involves the use of standard tools for assessing and mitigating risks associated with cash transfers, as well as evaluating transfer mechanisms and establishing relationships with financial institutions, where relevant. Technical specialists involved in rolling out this initiative work with country programmes to adapt local systems and build capacity.

Oxfam is also developing preparedness plans, including baseline data on market systems. In the event of a disaster, these baselines are intended to serve as a starting point for response analysis. These plans align well with efforts to train staff at the country level, as these staff can ensure that cash transfer programmes are considered as one available option when deciding on the most appropriate response.

What helped in institutionalisation?

Save the Children and Oxfam followed different trajectories in addressing these obstacles. However, there are common lessons on institutionalising cash transfer programming that may be relevant to other humanitarian agencies.

First, the fact that cash transfer programming is new to many teams can be a huge challenge. Within Oxfam and Save the Children, ‘internal advocates’ were crucial in taking cash transfer programming forward. For example, Oxfam’s cash transfer programming finance guidelines were co-authored by a senior finance manager with experience of working in several cash-based humanitarian responses. She was able to effectively articulate the challenges faced by finance teams and provide solutions to them.

Second, seizing opportunities to demonstrate the effectiveness of cash transfer programming can go a long way to institutionalising it. For example, working in consortia to deliver cash transfer programmes at scale during the responses to the Pakistan floods and the Somalia famine has helped to push the agenda forward. The magnitude of these humanitarian crises meant that many more senior managers were involved in these responses, enabling them to understand and recognise the value of cash transfer programming, especially when done on a large scale.

Third, expertise on cash transfer programming often rests within the food security and livelihood teams. However, to reach consensus within an organisation on the role and importance of cash transfers it is necessary to ensure that a wider range of staff understand the concepts and terminology. In Oxfam, using a market-based approach to cash transfer programming and private sector engagement helped a great deal in engaging non-food teams, demystifying the concept of cash transfer programming and enabling other teams, particularly logistics and WASH, to see its relevance for their own areas of work.

Fourth, numbers count in the speedy institutionalisation of any new initiative. In both organisations, consistent efforts were made to train a large number of staff at country, regional and head office levels. This ensured that cash transfer programming was given serious consideration when analysing possible responses to crises, and increased confidence at the country level to embark on cash transfer programming wherever the response analysis suggested it as an appropriate response.

Finally, management buy-in is crucial. Senior managers in Oxfam communicate directly with all staff (based in countries, regions and at headquarters) through monthly or quarterly newsletters. The most recent newsletter from the International Director speaks very positively about the cash transfer programme in Mali, boosting the confidence of the country team and sending a very positive signal across the organisation in favour of cash transfer programming.


There is no set formula for institutionalising cash programming within humanitarian agencies. It is a slow, difficult and iterative process, which entails strengthening capacity, modifying existing systems and procedures and ensuring the effective implementation of these changes. The fact that Save the Children has rolled out the cash emergency preparedness process in only four countries to date reflects the length and complexity of the task. As with any process involving widespread organisational change, management buy-in is crucial. While progress has been made in institutionalising processes and procedures for cash programming in the humanitarian operations of both agencies, there is clearly more to do. Future efforts will need to focus on improving the quality of cash-based interventions, encouraging innovation and maintaining the momentum on skills development.

Rosie Jackson is the Senior Emergency Food Security and Livelihoods Advisor at Save the Children UK. Nupur Kukrety is the Social Protection and Food Security Advisor at Oxfam GB.


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