Opinion

Can cash transfers unleash the participation revolution?

Nick van Praag • 23 May 2018

Cash transfers and community participation are often twinned as the load bearing pillars of humanitarian reform. But is cash the powerful driver of participation it is cracked up to be? 

Progress towards the Participation Revolution, one of the goals of the Grand Bargain struck at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, is still modest. In our field studies of people’s perceptions of progress towards meeting the goals of the bargain, we discovered that from Afghanistan to Haiti, by way of the Middle East and Africa, people have a consistently negative sense of their ability to participate in decisions about what kind of aid is provided and how. This is troubling because statistical correlations across the data suggest that when people feel able to participate they are also more positive about the relevance of the support they get and their ability to stand on their own feet. In other words, the failure to make progress on participation has knock-on effects on people’s perceptions about other aspects of humanitarian action.

With progress slow on participation, hopes are high for cash to shift the needle. Our Cash Barometer, which we launched in 2017 with technical support from the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP), monitors how people affected by crisis perceive the cash scale-up and provides an independent assessment of user satisfaction with different cash-based approaches. The premise was that by injecting the views of affected people into the way cash is provided, we could help make programmes more effective.

What is clear from recent surveys of cash transfer programmes in Afghanistan, Dominica, Kenya, and Turkey is that people prefer receiving cash to getting stuff. Only rarely do they have a choice about how transfers are provided but generally they express a preference for flexible ways of receiving and spending money over more restricted vouchers.

What about cash transfers and people’s sense of participation and empowerment? Here the data offers a surprising insight. In all four countries included in our surveys - each covering a range of cash transfer programmes and delivery mechanisms - the majority of people we interviewed did not understand why they were eligible. In Kenya, some 88 percent of people receiving transfers said they did not know how recipients were selected. In Afghanistan and Dominica more than 85 percent of respondents were unaware of eligibility criteria while in Turkey the corresponding number was 61 percent. Majorities of people in all four countries, meanwhile, said they did not know how long they would remain eligible. Given this lack of information, it is not surprising that people have mixed views about whether cash programmes reach those most in need.

Cash transfers alone are not enough to breach the barricades and unleash the Participation Revolution. But if cash is to take us faster in that direction, more effort must go into explaining how cash programmes work, who is eligible and for how long. Far from being a silver bullet for community participation, cash programmes need the same kind of two-way communication support that is central to the success of other types of aid. In fact, the multiplicity of mechanisms for receiving and spending cash transfers and the range of actors involved in their delivery mean more communication will be necessary as the market share of cash-based aid continues to grow.

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