The current crisis in Ukraine has shocked us all and resulted in a huge outpouring of solidarity and support. Rightly as humanitarians, and as custodians of the Fundamental Principle of humanity, we want to deliver assistance that supports people’s dignity and choice at the scale and speed that is needed.

Now more than ever, perhaps it is easier for us to understand what a cash first or default approach is. Markets are functioning across the crisis and all the countries affected (except for some areas of eastern Ukraine) and more importantly people are used to a cash economy. So why have we not been able to deliver cash within hours linked to well-established safety nets systems for those fleeing their homes? Why have we continued to deploy a goods-first approach?

We have chronically under-invested in humanitarian cash delivery; in National Societies, whose leadership needs to continuously commit to the organisational change required, deepen existing partnerships and ways of working with external stakeholders; in the systems and prepositioning of cash to enable strong and capable cash ready first responders; in the surge system, which provides support when national capacities are overwhelmed; and in the people and competencies that are needed.

For too long we have tried to adapt our existing systems for in-kind to cash, because cash ‘is easy’; because we focus on sectoral outputs rather than outcomes and impact; and because ultimately, we are failing to be driven solely by people’s needs and preferences. We need new operational models fit to deliver cash that place people at the centre and we need to shift investment to enable this to become a reality.

The Movement response is starting to deliver emergency cash in the surrounding countries, which requires simultaneously building National Society commitment and competence, data sharing protocols with a range of external stakeholders, self-registration applications, community messaging and feedback mechanisms as well as how to physically deliver cash into people’s hands, of course. We should be proud of this as it is a testament to those cash experts (well done BRC for supplying 14 such experts to date!) who have been advocating to their National Society peers to take up a modality that is new for the majority, at the same time as coordinating externally and internally and designing and implementing the response. The picture in Ukraine is somewhat more complicated.

Learning will start to be captured in real time but let this be a lesson to all of us that we must commit to do better. We need to build a new way of working that enables prepositioning of National Society leadership commitment to integrating Cash & Voucher Assistance (CVA) and sustainable capacities and a fit for purpose surge system that can and will deliver cash within 48 hours to, say, 500,000 families. To do anything less would mean we are not learning the lessons right in front of us.

Authors: Aston Mulwafu, Head of Disaster Management and Cash Surge, Malawi Red Cross Society; Ireen Mutombwa -Shumba, National Disaster Manager, South Africa Red Cross Society; and supported by Maja Tønning, Regional CVA Coordinator, IFRC Africa

SARCS cash distribution

In July 2021, several provinces in South Africa were impacted by urban violence following the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma. The situation triggered wider rioting and looting in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, further fueled by high unemployment rates, poverty, and economic inequality. The violence and rioting led to the death of 212 individuals and the arrest of 2,554 people.

In response to the crisis, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) approved the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) to help South Africa Red Cross Society (SARCS) provide immediate relief and lifesaving assistance to the affected households. For the first time, SARCS opted to provide the support through cash transfers, which are seen to be more dignified and offer free choice for affected populations. A Cash Surge delegate from Malawi came to South Africa to support SARCS in the set-up of the response, including on contracting a financial service provider (Nedbank) and ensuring that the National Society had the capacity and the right tools in place to deliver cash in a timely and accountable manner. In total, SARCS reached 1,636 households with cash support amounting to 350,490.95 CHF.

Video of old woman giving thanks to SARCS for the cash assistance:

On the 12th of December 2021 to mid-January 2022, severe thunderstorms in South Africa hit the Eastern Province consecutively leaving 290,410 people in desperate situation, with 23 fatalities and several injuries recorded. The most severe impacts were related to people’s loss of shelter, increased food insecurity and disrupted livelihoods. For the second time in only 6 months, SARCS opted to respond with cash assistance supporting 1,000 household with total funding of 374,026.13 CHF. Once again, the cash surge capacity was offered to the National Society to support the cash response.

Learning from one response using cash as a modality to the next

Key experiences and lessons learned between the first and second project using cash transfers:

Video of SARCS staff appreciating the opportunity to utilise CVA as a modality

The process for SARCS to build up basic capacities on cash transfers and be able to implement this was very much through learning-by-doing as the emergencies occurred at a time when the National Society had no prior experience in cash and voucher assistance. However, through the DREF implementation, the National Society got trained on the response modalities, and strengthened their capacities to plan, implement, monitor, and advocate for using cash in emergencies. According to a post-distribution monitoring exercise with affected populations, 99% of those interviewed stated that they were satisfied with the project and with receiving cash assistance.  Furthermore, the survey showed that the majority of the cash received was spent on food and medicine purchases, hence responding to the critical needs of the affected population.

Challenges faced in the two responses:

Was the learning-by-doing and cash surge support enough to make SARCS cash ready?

Cash preparedness is usually a multi-year process supported by a Partner to ensure that National Societies are capable of independently implementing cash and voucher assistance and have systems and processes in place to roll out quality and timely cash responses at scale. From that perspective, SARCS still need investments and support to strengthen their cash readiness, while the DREFs and the external support provided within these responses enabled the National Society to deliver small-scale cash responses. Not least, the National Society staff and senior management recognizes the benefits of using cash or voucher modalities in future responses in that they recognize the flexibility in using cash transfers compared to in-kind assistance.

Video of SARCS staff appreciating the CVA training

SARCS is currently developing and strengthening cash capacities across nine provinces in which they work including establishing and maintaining good working relationships with various external stakeholders.

See more on cash preparedness for National Societies here:

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