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Cash may be the 'new normal', but is its role really clear?

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By Unknown person on 15 January 2013.

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 The New Year sees a positive development in the growing acceptance of cash transfer programmes (CTPs) as an appropriate and effective tool to meet needs in emergencies: the Food Assistance Convention has come into force.

This welcome policy development will undoubtedly help to pave the way for more routine consideration of CTPs in emergencies, and likely at ever greater scales. But this in turn has got me thinking about some of the current barriers that may prevent this happening in practice. One constraint to the large-scale consideration or use of CTPs in emergencies – be they as a response to food insecurity or other immediate needs – is that the place of cash is not always clear in sector-based humanitarian coordination systems.

For instance, cash coordination tends to be reactive rather than strategic, and is usually sector-specific. There have now been many cash coordination groups set up in response to emergencies, including in Haiti, Pakistan Côte d’Ivoire and the Horn of Africa, to name a few. These groups are usually set up only once agencies have (separately) done response analysis and decided to implement CTPs. This means that opportunities for harmonised programming or for implementing multi-sector responses that incorporate CTP can be missed.

I’ve written previously in these pages on the coordination of CTPs in emergencies. A recent Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) comparative study (based on two reviews of cash coordination experiences from Haiti and the Horn of Africa, and experiences from other emergencies) proposed a new way to envisage cash coordination. Rather than seeing cash transfers as a single ‘entity’ that needs a distinct coordination structure (such as a ‘cash cluster’), cash coordination is instead broken down into a set of constituent tasks or functions, that needn’t all be coordinated in the same way. The functions of cash coordination range from the technical (e.g. a community of practice, the harmonisation of transfer rates, etc.) to the strategic (e.g. determining when it is appropriate to deploy cash transfers, mapping gaps and duplications etc.).

While all areas of cash coordination require strengthening to some extent, at the most recent CaLP global learning event based on the study and review findings, there was agreement amongst participants that the greatest gaps lie in strategic coordination. Most major emergencies are coordinated through the cluster approach, and there is little appetite for adding another coordination structure to the mix. Strengthening the capacity of the cluster system to take on various functions of cash coordination was identified as a priority.
Within this, integrating cash within all of the sectoral clusters – their trainings, guidance, assessment and decision-making tools, and so on – is key for making the consideration of cash more explicit within their work. Cash can play a powerful role as a multi-sector and multi-purpose tool that flexibly addresses a range of needs. There is of course a risk that aligning the use of cash too closely with a sector-based coordination system may constrain its more innovative applications. However, integrating cash coordination into existing clusters is a pragmatic first step in the short- to-medium-term.

External developments such as the coming into force of the Food Assistance Convention suggest that cash is on the way to becoming a ‘new normal’ in emergency response, and so likely to increase the need for effective coordination of CTP. What, then, do you see as the priority areas to address for improved cash coordination in emergencies? Where do you see it sitting in humanitarian coordination systems? One thing is for sure: given the ability of CTP to cross sectors and meet multiple needs, any cash coordination at cluster level should be complemented by additional cross-sectoral coordination. Clear consensus is yet to emerge on the structure, responsibilities and placement of this inter-sectoral group, or how it would be reflected at global level. What are your thoughts on the long-term arrangements for this?

[Photo caption: Tess Williams/Oxfam]

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