Issue 54 - Article 6

New technologies in cash transfer programming and humanitarian assistance

May 30, 2012
Gabrielle Smith, Concern Worldwide
Cash transfer recipients in Niger attend mobile phone training

Information and communication technology is evolving at an extraordinary pace, changing the way we live and work. In recent years, advances in mobile phone penetration and other new technologies in low-income and disaster-affected countries mean that there is growing interest from donors, practitioners and governments as to how technology can serve humanitarian responses. This article summarises the findings of a study commissioned by the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) to review the current use of new technology in humanitarian cash and voucher programming, and the broader implications for humanitarian practice. This article draws on Gabrielle Smith et al., New Technology Enhancing Humanitarian Cash and Voucher Programming, a report for the Cash Learning Partnership, 2011; and Gabrielle Smith, ‘Mobile Money In Times of Crisis’, UX Magazine, vol. 11 Issue 2, 2012 © Usability Professionals’ Association.  It explores three different areas of technology (electronic payments, mobile communications and digital data-gathering), barriers to adopting technology and ways forward.

Branchless banking and electronic payment systems

Aid agencies providing cash transfers often do so by putting cash in envelopes and handing them to recipients. However, the logistical, operational and security challenges presented by the movement of large amounts of cash to isolated or insecure places has meant that humanitarian programmers have become interested in the evolution of ‘branchless banking’ services. These use electronic payments (or ‘e-payment’) technology to allow financial value to be transferred from the bank account of the aid agency to the bank accounts or mobile phones of recipients. Recipients can withdraw the cash transferred from any branchless banking or mobile money ‘agent’ (usually a local trader) or use the value to purchase commodities directly in local shops. There are four main types of e-payment systems: pre-paid debit cards, chip-enabled ‘smart’ cards, mobile money and electronic voucher systems redeemable through mobile phones. The research identified agencies that have used or are using these e-payment systems for cash transfers in 25 programmes in 11 countries.

In general, agency experiences using e-payment systems to deliver cash transfers in emergencies have been positive and the agencies interviewed want to utilise these tools in the future. The most important reported benefits of e-payment systems are improved security for staff and recipients, improved reconciliation of accounts and increased speed and lower costs. However, agencies working with new systems in emergency zones and with the poorest sections of society also face challenges arising from lack of prior experience with technology, poor infrastructure, low literacy and lack of training.

smith_table_1Whilst aid recipients are likely to be new to such technology, this does not present too great a barrier. Aid agencies should not exclude particular groups from the opportunity to access technology based on lack of previous experience. Rather, the decision should depend on the context, the specific needs of the group, their mobility and the potential to build responses to their needs into the programme; sensitisation and support should be provided to ensure that people can use the technology.

Aid agencies report that e-payment recipients overwhelmingly prefer this method to manual transfer alternatives, even when they found the system challenging. A rapid evaluation of the WATAN card programme in Pakistan, conducted by DFID and UBL Bank, confirmed that everybody with a card was able to withdraw the grant and 96% of recipients said that they preferred to receive support through the card. In Niger, a country with one of the highest adult illiteracy rates and lowest phone penetration in the world, almost all households interviewed during the independent evaluation of the programme appreciated the mobile money method. The feelings of self-respect and confidence instilled by putting technology into people’s hands for the first time should not be underestimated.

Mobile communications

Mobile technology is also being used in other ways to enable communication throughout the programme cycle. Mobile phones are used to communicate important information to disaster-affected people, for example through call centre hotlines, automated voice-messaging systems and mass text alerts. They are also being used in feedback and complaints systems set up by aid agencies in contexts as diverse as Haiti and Niger, to improve the accountability and effectiveness of aid programmes by establishing two-way communication with beneficiaries.

The research found that mobile communication systems are increasing the speed and efficiency with which agencies communicate vital information to dispersed populations. This can improve programme accountability and is appreciated by affected communities. However, as with all technology, it is only as effective as the way it is used: experiences in Haiti showed that mass messaging must be clear and accurate to prevent confusion or distrust. Literacy issues mean that two-way communication hotlines are favoured over text-based systems. In addition, the costs of making a call should be covered by the aid agency or mobile network operator since this can prove prohibitive for poor people. Most importantly, mobile communications tools need to complement rather than replace traditional means of communication, since face-to-face contact with communities is critically important for humanitarian work.

Experience with digital data gathering

Digital data gathering applications such as Episurveyor, PSI Mobile and FrontlineSMS allow household survey and other monitoring data to be collected directly into mobile phones or handheld devices rather than on paper forms, for upload directly to a data management system. These emerging technological solutions are being used by agencies seeking to improve the accuracy, efficiency and effectiveness of monitoring and evaluation activities. Similar tools such as the Last Mile Mobile Solution tool developed by World Vision are also being applied to recipient registration and data management, including using biometric data. Last Mile Mobile Solutions (LMMS): Technology and Partnering for Social Innovation, ALNAP Innovations Case Study No. 3, 2009.

For the most part, agencies have found that these technologies have been quickly mastered and adopted by staff, easily integrated with existing systems and accepted by recipient communities. The overall experience has been positive and no agency interviewed during the CaLP research is planning to switch back to paper-based forms. With appropriate planning and the right choice of tools, agencies adopting digital data gathering technology saw significant gains in the speed and efficiency of data collection and analysis, with potential for cost savings over time and increased impact. In some cases, however, inadequate planning and preparation has led to piloting of inappropriate tools. This was the case with UNOPS in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a phone-based application was commissioned by head office without consideration of the realities of field operations, including the need for long battery life and night-working. Adopting a new technological solution in the midst of a humanitarian emergency with no prior preparedness creates difficulties and can slow down response times.

Barriers to wider adoption

New technology offers a promising way to deliver aid with speed, precision and flexibility even in challenging environments. That said, only a handful of programmes are using this technology on a large scale, and no agency is using any of these technologies systematically. The research reported on here identified various barriers that are impeding the wider adoption of new technology. These are summarised in Table 2.


Moving forward

The humanitarian sector is reaching a critical juncture as it moves from piloting technologies towards the wider diffusion of these innovations. The CaLP report recommends a number of actions to move forward in this area.

Improving the technological environment

Experience has shown that approaches initiated by aid agencies to e-payment service providers in emerging markets have the potential to influence the scale up of the branchless banking agent network to where it is needed for humanitarian purposes, especially if agencies work together to pool their requirements. This could lead to co-financing arrangements between donors, governments and mobile network operators to support the extension of mobile networks and branchless banking to underserved and disaster-prone areas. The humanitarian sector should also explore the potential of ‘piggy-backing’ on existing e-payment systems, such as those used by governments to deliver social protection transfers, rather than developing parallel systems. The humanitarian community could also advocate with governments for improvements in the regulatory environment for new technology.

Increase capacity and preparedness

A crisis is not the appropriate time to begin investigating the use of unfamiliar tools. In places where technology solutions are available, practical training can help staff understand how these tools could be used in a crisis. In addition, many of the technological solutions identified are of value not only to emergency cash transfer programmes, but could be adopted more systematically, making new technologies cost-effective more quickly and giving staff greater confidence in using them in an emergency. Humanitarian agencies should establish pre-agreements with service providers as part of contingency planning, while being cautious not to skew the market or promote monopolies.

New ways of working

Humanitarian actors need to develop new ways of working together in order to improve coordination, increase influence and realise economies of scale when using new technologies. Aggregating demands from the humanitarian sector to service providers could build a significant business case for expanding services to remote disaster-prone areas. Agencies should invest in overcoming internal barriers to adopting new ways of working, and those with experience of new technologies should consolidate this and develop a ‘tool box’ of standard approaches. To help overcome the high costs of investing in technological solutions, donors could create incentive structures to develop technology platforms that meet humanitarian needs.


There is no single answer to delivering cash to people in low-income and disaster-affected communities. Deciding what system to use depends on the context, the delivery options available, what the programme aims to achieve, its scale and scope and the recipient profile. Utilising new technology brings both benefits and increased complexities to humanitarian aid, but experience shows that, in the right circumstances, the benefits are worth the effort. Efforts should be concentrated on overcoming known barriers, improving the reach of existing technologies to disaster-prone communities and working with new partners to enable the use of technology to enhance our ability to deliver aid.

Gabrielle Smith is Social Protection and Safety Nets Advisor at Concern Worldwide (UK).


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