-By Paula Gil Baizan Advocacy Coordinator, CaLP
The World Humanitarian Summit process has shown that there is one thing the world agrees with: we need to get better at assisting people in need. Big problems require equally big solutions. The Agenda for Humanity calls for big solutions.
A substantial amount of research – a great deal of it produced by CaLP – shows that delivering aid directly in the form of cash is one of those big solutions. Cash is often a highly effective way of alleviating suffering. Cash makes aid budgets go further at a time where organisations are asked to do more with less, in increasingly complex environments. Beneficiaries prefer to receive cash. Advancements in technology can be leveraged to deliver cash, and have a positive impact in building people’s resilience and provide aid in a timely manner in hard to reach areas.
Cash is a big solution. Unfortunately, the World Humanitarian Summit process has shown that, when consensus is needed to formulate commitments among States, there are still important disagreements regarding the true value of cash transfer programming and the role it should play in humanitarian assistance.
Take, for example, the Grand Bargain. A process that for many represents the best chance to achieve something concrete at the Summit. Many men/women hours and a great deal of political will have been invested in crafting papers and negotiating commitments relating to cash transfer programming. If you’d asked my opinion about the content of the cash section in April, I would have said I was impressed. We had bold proposals and clear calls for action to significantly scale up cash as a default and preferred option. Participants were called to work together to understand and manage the actual and perceived risks of scaling up cash, measure outcomes and implement ambitious recommendations on cash coordination. It was looking good – so good that there was alignment with parallel bottom- up processes happening - like the Agenda for Cash, generated by CaLP and its network. Implementers (from the bottom) and donors and States (from the top) were actually meeting in the middle.
Now, take a look at the cash section of the final version of the Grand Bargain. You’ll see that the language is more sober. The aspirational tone of April is nowhere to be found. In the final version ‘some donors may wish to scale up significantly’, ‘ensure that coordination […] mechanisms are put in place,’ ‘increase the routine use of cash’. The terms ‘scale-up’ and ‘preferred’ that have been the protagonists of heated discussions this last months are absent from the commitments. The infamous ‘default’ form the UN SG’s report for the WHS is not even in the document. How did we end up with this text? Are these sober commitments in relation to cash an indication that we have failed?
Let’s zoom out.
If we look at the World Humanitarian Summit in comparison to other similar global processes that aim to achieve change at a global level within the UN framework, we realise that the WHS is special. It is a process that from the very beginning has privileged diversity over unanimity. The WHS doesn’t require States to make commitments by consensus. There isn’t a single objective for the Summit and States won’t sign a negotiated document at the end of it. Commitments are also not binding. In the spirit of inclusiveness, States, the private sector and development and humanitarian actors are asked to come to the summit with their commitments for reform. Someone in the WHS Secretariat explained to me that the logic behind this design is that in international processes like this, the level of diversity and aspirations in the commitments tend to be inversely proportional to the level of consensus required to achieve them.
But if the WHS is in general an open-ended process, the Grand Bargain formal consultations and negotiations have been going on for months. So I conclude that the less aspirational wording of the cash commitments in the Grand Bargain is only a reflection of what is actually possible with the level of understanding of cash transfer programming at that level of decision-making. Its sobriety represents what is doable in relation to cash transfer programming when consensus is necessary. It shows that while at the technical level we are making great progress towards scaling up multipurpose cash and understanding new ways of operating more efficiently; at a strategic level there is still a need to raise awareness and advocate for the value of cash transfer programming as an effective way of alleviating human suffering and the lead role it should play in humanitarian assistance.
Giving people assistance in the form of cash challenges all sorts of deep-seated attitudes about how best to help people in need. How to shift the power balance between those providing aid and those receiving it, is a question that the WHS is not really asking. Cash, by its very nature, pushes agencies to relinquish control for the benefit of the beneficiary and the communities they live in. Cash is a catalyst for change for those who receive it and the humanitarian system as a whole.
But cash is not a panacea. Cash is a tool. A very effective and efficient one, but a tool, and as such needs to be considered with equity with others when selecting a response modality. In his report on the World Humanitarian Summit, Ban Ki-Moon called for cash to be the preferred and default method of support, conditions permitting. The terms ‘default’ and ‘preferred’ speak more to shifting the burden of proof between cash and in kind commodities than it refers to a limitation of choice for modality selection. At the core of the intention to scale up cash programming is to give affected populations what they prefer and to provide a degree of control over their own recovery. In that way is that cash should be a preferred modality. Cash first, is not short-hand for cash only. ‘Putting cash first’ is about treating all modalities equally in terms of the selection requirements set on each modality when making a selection of one or anotherfor each. Putting cash first is about putting people first.
Let’s go back to the cash commitments in the final version of the Grand Bargain. Have we failed? Of course not. The commitments are important achievements and should be used by organizations to leverage their own commitments to scale up cash transfer programming. They should also be used as a baseline to measure the effectiveness of other cash-related global advocacy work - aimed at changing perceptions, behaviors and policies. Being able to maintain the momentum of change after the Summit should be our only marker of success.
We all agree we need to get better at assisting people in need. Big problems require equally big solutions. We just need to get better at showcasing how big a solution cash transfer programming really is.