Climate change makes cash and vouchers essential — here's what is needed to make it happen

A recipient shows her Oxfam cash voucher. Photo by: Jane Beesley / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — Cyclone Harold, which impacted communities in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu in early April, highlighted the increasing unpredictability of weather-related disasters in the Pacific. The effects of Harold were greatly felt in remote coastal communities, and — combined with travel restrictions due to COVID-19 — the ability to deliver services in these areas was severely limited.

With evidence showing that this region in particular will continue to face weather-related disasters due to climate change, there is a need to deliver humanitarian assistance better, enabling remote communities to be as self-sufficient as possible in the early days — or weeks — of a humanitarian response.

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The Pacific Cash Preparedness Partnership, a five-year initiative led by Oxfam, Save the Children, and the World Food Programme, is supporting research on cash and voucher assistance, or CVA, in the region. The partnership’s new “Solomon Islands Cash Transfer Feasibility Study” adds to a body of literature, including studies from Vanuatu in February 2019 and Fiji in May 2019, that is identifying the feasibility of CVA programming and what is required to support wider implementation.

“To be in a position to roll out cash programming after a disaster, we need to introduce the concept to communities, national and local governments, civil society organizations, and private sector companies,” Archie Law, humanitarian director for Save the Children Australia, told Devex. “It’s about setting up the systems first to ensure cash programming can be used in a fast, efficient, and dignified way straight after a disaster.”

Cash transfer feasibility in the Solomons

The Solomon Islands study is the largest Pacific CVA study to date, both geographically and in the number of participants. To determine whether CVA programming would be appropriate and accepted, the study focused on five of the country’s nine provinces — Guadalcanal, Western, Temotu, Malaita, and Makira — which are divided across the 992 islands.

But to understand challenges and barriers to access, the study extended beyond the communities to include an assessment of CVA infrastructure. A public sector assessment was conducted at the national level to determine what products and services were available to support the delivery of CVA.

The study found that while 80% of communities had been affected by disasters over the past five years, the majority of them had to wait more than four weeks to receive assistance. Food, clothing, and shelter items were needed in the immediate aftermath of disasters.

Most households that were surveyed preferred unconditional cash over other forms of short-term assistance to get needed items from local markets and canteens following a natural disaster.

The only challenge was the perception that cash could be spent on the “wrong things,” such as alcohol and tobacco — a notion that has been rejected by a World Bank study.

“It’s about setting up the systems first to ensure cash programming can be used in a fast, efficient, and dignified way straight after a disaster.”

— Archie Law, humanitarian director, Save the Children Australia

But despite the preference for cash, the study found that the feasibility of CVA programming is reduced by households’ distance from major economic centers. In remote areas, limited access to banking services prevents the ability to deliver CVA programming effectively.

With the need to better support remote communities immediately following disasters, the report provides a number of guidelines. A key recommendation is to work with commercial banks, remittance agencies, and mobile money providers to establish systems for mass registrations of bank accounts and other transfer systems to increase the number of cash-out services across the islands.

Partnering with local banks to encourage customers to open accounts and provide financial literacy training is also seen as a priority in building greater financial inclusion.

From recommendations to action

Understanding the desire and potential for CVA programming, along with the barriers to large-scale implementation, is a critical step in turning recommendations into action.

“Until now, there has not been a study of this nature and scale in the Solomon Islands,” Law told Devex. “This report is the first of its kind and provides us with invaluable insights and knowledge so we can begin rolling out cash transfer program preparedness activities across key parts of the country.”

With the recommendations in hand, Law said Save the Children Australia and other NGOs partners are supporting the Pacific Cash Preparedness Partnership through close engagement with government, civil society, humanitarian, and private sector partners — including banks and telecommunications companies — to build the infrastructure for cash transfer programming across provinces for various weather-related disasters the country may face in the future.

“Every humanitarian response is different, so cash and voucher assistance will need to be adjusted to suit that situation,” Law said. “The key is getting the mechanisms in place first. ... Depending on the operational context, cash transfers can be provided as mobile money payments, bank transfers, physical cash, or vouchers to be spent at selected supermarket merchants.”

And with climate change increasing the number and intensity of disasters, getting the environment right to support communities is an urgent need for humanitarian organizations.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.