The increasing popularity of cash-based assistance: Q&A with Max Schott, OCHA Cameroon country director

The European Commission's humanitarian aid department and Action Against Hunger provide cash transfer as well as food assistance to the poorest families in Burkina Faso. Photo by: ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

Scaling up cash-based assistance has proven to be a widely popular trend in the development community, with organizations such as the World Food Programme and the U.N. Refugee Agency boosting their ability to provide monetary aid in catastrophic situations.

Cash-based aid can be deployed in the form of paper money, credit cards, gift cards and mobile money transfers by phone.

The shift stems from the signing of the “Grand Bargain,” a document created by more than 30 international member organizations at the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit last May. This agreement designated cash-based assistance as the default method of support for people in emergencies wherever possible. Since then, the use of cash as a substitute for food — and a means to buy it as well — quickly became recognized as an efficient way to meet other basic needs, including buying nonfood items or services such as medical care.

Cash-based aid has been widely maintained in places such as rural Africa, thanks to reliable delivery mechanisms. With the expansion of mobile money transfers and other technologies, the efficiency and security of cash delivery has improved. Devex spoke with Max Schott, OCHA country director in Cameroon, on how cash is helping those in crisis in West Africa. Here are highlights of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How is cash-based assistance being used in your country?

In Cameroon, cash-based assistance allows people to decide for themselves what is best for them. There are studies about people using it to pay for breakfast, for their kids’ school meals, consultations at health facilities, etc. Obviously, it can be for food, for shelter (if you’re displaced), or any nonfood items.

There is a whole wide range of urgent needs, and there’s been a shift in approach where it’s not the agency or the humanitarian actor who’s in the driver’s seat about what they need. It’s the actual people themselves. At the same time, it will support the local economy and not jeopardize their system.

Cash only works if markets are functional and if things actually can be bought at the local market. We have done studies and market surveys about the feasibility of cash as modality, and so far it looks very encouraging and positive. For Cameroon, we hope also that the cash will allow us to reach people who are very difficult to access because of security and logistical constraints.

In cases where cash-based assistance is being used for hard-to-reach locations, how does that work logistically?

It’s done by mobile phone transfers. So the mobile phone network reaches, more or less, the entire country and so we make money transfers via mobile networks.

In the past, it seemed as though there was a resistance in the aid community to give those in need access to cash, and instead give them whatever basic need they were lacking itself (food, shelter, etc.). You mentioned the change is a reflection of a larger push brought on by the World Humanitarian Summit, but what do you think has caused such a shift in thinking about what would be most useful in these situations?

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First of all, we aim to use the limited resources we have in the most efficient and effective manner. That’s the overall aim of the humanitarian actors.

Now cash is not (in every context) the most efficient and effective way of providing assistance. It really depends on the reality of the context. As mentioned before, can people actually buy something? Are the markets functional? Is there food on the market shelves?

The second thing is, there’s the recognition that people know best for themselves what is good for them and what they need. And lastly is the issue about making sure that the outward assistance does not jeopardize local markets. For example, if we are bringing food trucks with food from somewhere else and at the same time there is food on the markets from the local farmers, then we are undermining the entire longer term livelihoods of the people.

Is there an increased amount of trust in recipients that the people in need will not misuse the cash assistance?

Well, there are studies. I think before there was some fear that people may use this money to buy booze and get drunk, for example, or for buying tobacco and not use it for school fees or health and food. But basically, the studies have shown that people are using the money for their most urgent needs and not wasting the money. So I think there is increasing evidence that this fear is not really justified.

Was there anything else you’d like to add specifically about the use of cash-based assistance in Cameroon?

I think cash-based assistance will be increasingly important. We have, for the first time, established a “cash working group,” harmonizing the amounts that get to different people. We have done a cash country profile for Cameroon. Cameroon is very young. We are in the first steps of establishing this cash working group, so we will continue working with it. It’s also a vector to foster the collaboration between the humanitarian development actors because in the cash working group you have actors such as the World Bank, who are traditionally linked to development aid working with governments. And again, we are hoping that this will allow more access to people. And it’s not only used for those regions where people do not have access, but also in other areas where cash is more effective than food distributions.

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About the author

  • Christin roby

    Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.