The following piece by Simon Levine of the Overseas Development Institute’s  Humanitarian Policy Group  (HPG) explores the increasing use of cash as a form of international humanitarian response. Exploring the changes that have come about over the past decade since the tsunami, Development Progress and ODI’s teamed up to ask what has changed in humanitarian responses. As part of a series, this article looks at how one particular form of response – cash programming – came of age during the tsunami response and the impact it will have on the role of humanitarian agencies in the future.


Scores of evaluations follow every major humanitarian response and there are always earnest assurances that ‘lessons have been learned’ from any imperfections in the emergency relief effort. Usually, business then carries on much as usual, but once in a while a crisis proves to be a watershed moment. Looking back ten years later, I think that the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami may come to change humanitarian action profoundly and permanently in ways that couldn’t be imagined at the time – and which are still not fully clear.

While the usual soul searching and ‘lesson learning’ went on afterwards, the real game-changer from the tsunami was not a ‘lesson learned’ at all, but was in fact one of its success stories: cash programming. The idea of giving people money to put their lives back in order after crises rather than just giving them food and other ‘stuff’ was hardly new, but it came of age during the tsunami response. Everyone’s needs are different and cash gives people choice. Choice means that needs get prioritised sensibly, and aid is not wasted because people end up selling off cheaply the things they don’t need.  Experience tells us that some of every kind of aid, even food aid, finds its way back to the market at knock-down prices. Choice gives people the chance to invest and become independent; and choices make people human, not passive victims being kept alive by charity. The benefits don’t stop there. In many cases, money transfers are also much cheaper than buying and delivering bulky ‘stuff’, as well as being much harder to ambush or steal from.

This case for cash was increasingly being made before the tsunami. But the doubters (and those with vested interests) poured scorn on the idea that people could be trusted to know what was best for themselves, that men wouldn’t just drink away the money, that the money wouldn’t all be stolen, that people wouldn’t contract ‘dependency syndrome’ if you gave them money instead of feeding them every day.

Several agencies had some experience of trying out cash, but the tsunami was the first test case for using cash on a massive scale, and for investing resources in learning about how to do it well. Not everything went perfectly, but the case was clearly proven in principlethat in many circumstances – though not all – giving cash is a better way of helping people.  In the decade since the tsunami, cash has gradually become a standard tool in the box, with more and more agencies and donors seeing it as the default option.

This technical change in aid delivery may only be the beginning of the story. For example, in the emergency response for refugees from Syria, different agencies have used ATM cards to give a monthly cash allowance to pay for rent and smartcards which can be used to buy food at designated shops. This has led some donors to ask whether the different agencies cannot combine their assistance on a single card. Whatever the answer to that question, this is only the precursor to what could be a revolution in the way aid is delivered in humanitarian responses.

This gradual but inexorable move towards a humanitarian world where people in crises receive a piece of plastic (or an allowance sent by mobile phone), with each agency contributing its allowance for purchasing the goods and services that it used to provide in-kind, raises a question: why do we then need so many agencies? Why can’t we have a single ‘Universal Relief Agency’ which provides the card and enough credit to meet all the needs that donors are prepared to support? Wouldn’t that be better value for money, and give recipients more control over their lives?

Am I predicting the end of all UN organisations and NGOs? Whatever their failings, I hope not. Distributing material aid has often taken up most of an agency’s time and effort, and the unfortunate result has been that they haven’t had the time to do all the really important and specialised things that such agencies ought to be doing. The need for people with specialist knowledge about delivering material relief in emergencies won’t entirely disappear.

Most significantly, the world badly needs agencies that are able to analyse many of the different problems facing people affected by crises – problems relating to food insecurity, health and the particular needs of children or of old people to name but a few. The world also needs agencies present at the grassroots, helping people to access the different kinds of support made available, and helping to identify and tackle the problems that cannot be addressed by simply handing over cash (or ‘stuff’) to people and telling them to get on with it.  Not everything can be fixed by giving people material assistance, but our preoccupation with it has meant that many difficult problems have been neglected.

Is it threatening to think of a world where relief agencies are less defined by what they hand out? Surely it should be seen as liberation – the chance to focus on more difficult, and perhaps more important, challenges. Such a future may have arrived even without the tsunami experience, but it provided the ground in which the seeds of this potential revolution first grew.