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The Cash Bargain: aspirations & possibilities at the WHS

The Cash Bargain: aspirations & possibilities at the WHS

By Paula Gil Baizan

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) process has shown that, when consensus is needed to formulate commitments among States, there’s still a lot to be done to change perceptions regarding the value of cash transfer programming and the role it should play in humanitarian assistance.

The WHS process has also demonstrated that there is one thing the world agrees on: we need to get better at assisting people in need. Big problems require big solutions. The Agenda for Humanity calls for big solutions.

A substantial amount of research – much of it produced by the Cash Learning Partnership (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 when organisations are asked to do more with less, and in increasingly complex environments. People that aid is targeting prefer to receive cash. Advancements in technology can be leveraged to deliver cash in hard to reach areas, and have a positive impact in building people’s resilience.

Cash is a big solution. Unfortunately, the WHS 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.

100 bills bargain
US$100 bills. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Take, for example, the Grand Bargain. A process that for many represents the best chance to achieve something concrete at the Summit. Many hours and a great deal of political will have been invested in crafting papers and negotiating commitments relating to cash transfer programming. In April, 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, to 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. The language is more sober. The aspirational tone of last month 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’ and ‘increase the routine use of cash’. The terms ‘scale-up’ and ‘preferred’, that have been the protagonists of heated discussions these last months, are absent from the commitments. The call from the UN Secretary General in his report for the WHS, for cash-based programming to be ‘the preferred and default method of support’, 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.

zoom out bargain
Zooming out! Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

If we look at the WHS 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. 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.

euros bargain
Dishing out Euros. Photo from Pixabay.

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 people 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; it is a tool, and as such needs to be considered with equity with others when selecting a response modality. 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. Putting cash first is about putting people first.

cash distribution bargain
Chanley Vileganio receives 5,000 pesos at a cash distribution to fisherfolk in Barangay (village) Sulangan, Bantayan Island. Photo credit: Oxfam (Giselle Miguens).

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 organisations 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, behaviours and policies. Being able to maintain the momentum of change after the Summit should be our only marker of success.

We all agree that we need to get better at assisting people in need. Big problems require equally big solutions. We now need to get better at showcasing how big a solution cash transfer programming really is.

A previous version of this post first appeared on Oxfam’s Policy and Practice blog.

Paula Gil Baizan is CaLP’s Advocacy Coordinator. She started her humanitarian career in Latin America and has since worked in the Middle East, East Africa and Asia. Follow Paula on twitter @chicledeuva for live updates during the WHS.

Featured image shows a stack of US$100 bills. Photo from Flickr.

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