'Zap it to me', or: the long-haul to innovation
Back in 2009, ALNAP produced our first Innovation Case Study; ‘Cash Transfers through Mobile Phones: An Innovative Emergency Response in Kenya’. The case study looked at a Concern Worldwide emergency response pilot programme which had been implemented during the post-election violence that erupted in Kenya in late 2007. Concern had pioneered the use of 'mobile-money' (through the ground-breaking service M-Pesa, itself originally supported by DFID) to distribute cash to vulnerable groups using mobile phones. The programme partnered with the company behind M-Pesa, and included the distribution of mobile phones and efforts to minimise the potential for abuses or exploitation.
The case study argued that despite initial software and logistical challenges, mobile phone technology – and particularly Concern’s programming model which sought to maximise sustainable secondary benefits – offered a unique and empowering approach to efficiently deliver assistance to the most vulnerable people living in insecure and remote rural areas.
I found the project an exciting, practical innovation that exemplified some of the key elements that our research was highlighting – it was built on collaboration, and it utilised technology while being grounded in an understanding of the context.
The pilot programme had been externally evaluated by Mike Brewin in June 2008 using the OECD-DAC criteria. The evaluation reported qualitative evidence which suggested that about 70 per cent of the transfer was spent on food, with the remaining 30 per cent on transport and other non-food essentials. The strong impact on beneficiary empowerment and an increased sense of dignity was also pointed to in qualitative evidence.
At the same time, and given that a major cost of the pilot was the distribution of the mobile phones and other equipment, the cost effectiveness of the intervention against traditional food distributions was only partially demonstrated, although it was noted that this would likely increase in longer term programmes.
I was excited then to see a recent Working Paper published by the Centre for Global Development entitled ‘Zap It to Me: The Short-Term Impacts of a Mobile Cash Transfer Program’ which presented evidence from another Concern Worldwide programme, this time in Niger. Written by Jenny Aker of the Fletcher School, Tufts University and Rachid Boumnijel, Amanda McClelland, and Niall Tierney from Concern Worlwide; the paper reports on:
“[T]he first randomized evaluation of a cash transfer program delivered via the mobile phone. In response to a devastating drought in Niger, households in targeted villages received monthly cash transfers as part of a social protection program. One-third of targeted villages received a monthly cash transfer via a mobile money transfer system (called zap), whereas one-third received manual cash transfers and the remaining one-third received manual cash transfers plus a mobile phone. We show that the zap delivery mechanism strongly reduced the variable distribution costs for the implementing agency, as well as program recipients’ costs of obtaining the cash transfer. The zap approach also resulted in additional benefits: households in zap villages used their cash transfer to purchase a more diverse set of goods, had higher diet diversity, depleted fewer assets and grew more types of crops, especially marginal cash crops grown by women.”
It’s great to see Concern continuing to explore ways of using mobile technologies to distribute cash, and extending this to new platforms and geographies. Indeed I was particularly pleased to see the development of the evidence base around this type of intervention, with more robust data on its effectiveness and impact.
Although I don’t know the degree to which the more recent programme in Niger is a direct evolution of the pilot in Kenya (a caveat here is that while research on M-Pesa is cited in the paper, the programme referred to above is not), I was struck by two related points around the development and diffusion of innovations.
- Successful innovations must be grounded in a commitment to evidence and leaning: from initial evaluations of pilot projects, to in-depth and robust control trials, gathering evidence to evaluate successes and failures, and feeding this learning back across projects and organisations is crucial to building innovations with long term impact.
- While the ‘eureka moments’ and successes of innovation are what capture the imagination, in reality the development and spread of new ideas takes time and commitment: Edison’s one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.
I think the examples of Concern’s work given above exemplify these points and it’s reassuringto see a humanitarian agency committed to testing and developing new ideas across a range of settings; documenting and sharing the results as they do.
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