Cash transfers are one of the most significant innovations in humanitarian assistance in recent memory. They offer greater dignity, choice and flexibility for disaster-affected peoples and an opportunity for us to become better humanitarians. Cash transfers provide a platform for humanitarians to reflect by asking, ‘Are we doing the right things, for the right reasons?’ The ‘right reasons’ must be centred on improving our ability to meet the needs and aspirations of the world’s most vulnerable men, women and children, today and tomorrow.
The ‘why cash’ debate is over
The debate amongst practitioners that cash transfers are a valuable addition to the food assistance ‘toolbox’ is largely over. The discussions have moved to the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ of how and when to leverage cash effectively.
In World Vision, 30% of our global food assistance portfolio was distributed as cash transfers in FY15 – up from 5% just 5 years earlier. Major food assistance donors have committed to ‘increasingly provide untied cash-based food assistance, whenever possible and based on needs’ in the modernised 2012 Food Assistance Convention. Similarly, a number of high profile reports for the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), including the Report of the UN Secretary General One humanity: Shared responsibility support a ‘cash-first’ approach to humanitarian assistance. An approach that World Vision is committed to, pledging that by 2020, 50% of our humanitarian programmes will adopt a cash-based approach, where contextually appropriate.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon use this one card for multi-purpose cash assistance.Photo: World Vision, 2016
Cash transfers are increasingly being seen as a multi-purpose solution to a multi-faceted problem; meeting multiple needs of disaster-affected men, women and children. An example of multi-purpose cash assistance (MCA) can be found in Lebanon, where the Lebanon Cash Consortium (LCC), of which World Vision is a member and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) are collaborating. Throughout Lebanon, Syrian refugees receive MCA on the same card used as a ‘WFP wallet’ – streamlining assistance for the beneficiary.
A modality, not a panacea
Cash transfers offer a significant opportunity to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian action. However, cash transfers are simply a transfer modality. The ability of cash transfers to deliver their promise fundamentally depends on whether or not they are calculated at a fair value and for a sufficient duration to accomplish the programme objectives. In short, cash transfers are neither a panacea for the global humanitarian financing gap nor a long-term solution to ending conflict, where 80% of humanitarian resources are currently directed.
Veronica collecting her vouchers. Photot: Alex Pritz and Will Miller, 2016
Cash transfers cannot effectively link to longer-term development or build resilience if the assistance does not arrive early enough to help vulnerable people mitigate the impacts of a crisis, or are not sustained long enough to help families recover. However, we have seen the transformational potential of cash transfers in our own programmes when undertaken in a principled way that is sensitive to market forces, respectful of affected populations’ preferences and needs and, to the greatest extent possible, are leveraged to support people to invest in their long-term food security and livelihoods.
Invest in humanity
The WHS is an unprecedented moment for the global humanitarian community to demonstrate its commitment to invest in humanity and leave no one behind. Increasing the proportion of humanitarian aid that is delivered as cash is an important part of delivering on this commitment.
World Vision calls all humanitarian actors – governments, private sector, academia, civil society, etc. – to invest in humanity by increasing the proportion of humanitarian assistance through a multi-purpose cash first approach, where contextually appropriate.
Learn more about our work in food assistance
 October 2014 – September 2015
 DFID (2015). Doing cash differently. How cash transfers can transform humanitarian aid. Report of the High Level Panel on Humanitarian Cash Transfers; High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing (2016). Too important to fail – addressing the humanitarian financing gap
 LCC members are: Save the Children (Consortium Lead), the International Rescue Committee (Monitoring, Evaluation, and Research Lead), Solidarités International, CARE, ACTED, and World Vision International. The LCC is funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).