A newly launched program from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is bringing an emerging trend in aid work—transfers of cash, rather than goods—to a war zone. Starting this fall, the IRC has committed to distributing $1 million in cash aid to tens of thousands of people in parts of Afghanistan. The effort leverages cell phone technology and local informal banking networks to help ensure the cash winds up where it’s most needed: with impoverished families displaced by the Taliban and ISIS.
Over the past decade, there has been a growing consensus that when it comes to assisting some populations in dire straits, simply handing over cash can be more effective than sending supplies like tents or rations of rice. Radha Rajkotia, the IRC’s senior director of economic recovery, traces the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as a turning point in the aid community’s understanding of cash. In particular, the response to the devastation in Aceh, Indonesia, convinced aid workers that cash “could really help stand up local markets by allowing people to buy the things they need locally, whereas previously the norm was to ship things in.”
Not only did cash seem to drive better outcomes, it also gave aid recipients the agency to make their own rational decisions about how to best improve their circumstances. “There was a focus on choice and dignity” in the emerging findings on cash aid, says Rajkotia.
As more studies supported the idea that cash often worked best, a whole movement called “effective altruism” blossomed. The movement focused on how individuals and organizations could do the most good with charitable dollars. The effective altruism researcher GiveWell has chosen GiveDirectly, a cash-transfer organization that alleviates poverty in East Africa, as one of just four charities it enthusiastically endorses, based on the measurable outcomes of its interventions.
Gone are the fears that populations in need will somehow misuse cash. Research is ongoing; through much of 2015, a leading U.K. think tank assembled a High Level Panel on Humanitarian Cash Transfers, which acknowledged that “Cash transfers challenge the ‘business model’ of humanitarian aid,” and merited closer study. A culminating report on the nuances and questions surrounding cash came out late in 2015.
That same year, IRC outlined a “cash strategy” in which it planned to increase its use of cash, from about 6% of its humanitarian assistance in 2015 to fully 25% by 2020. “The IRC will systematically default to a preference of cash over material assistance,” it announced in a report on its plans. “The humanitarian architecture is rapidly changing.” The IRC report adds that it plans to have cash transfer programs active in 75% of its offices by 2020.
Committing to cash aid in the wake of a natural disaster is one thing. But executing that vision in a war zone, and one as varied and unpredictable as Afghanistan, is another. In Nangarhar Province, east of Kabul, recent incursions from ISIS fighters have displaced many people, uprooting them from their homes and depriving them of their belongings. In Nangarhar, as in other parts of the country with reliable cell phone service, the IRC is piloting its cash aid using mobile banking technology.
Afghanistan’s telecommunications is dominated by a company called Roshan, which was awarded one of the country’s first major licenses following the U.S. invasion after 9/11. In recent years, M-Pesa, a mobile banking platform that originated in Kenya and Tanzania has made major inroads into Afghanistan, typically on Roshan-serviced phones. “It started as a small thing in major cities,” says David Haines, IRC’s country director for Afghanistan, “then spread to major towns across the country.” Haines says that thousands of vendors accept M-Pesa throughout Afghanistan today.
IRC has partnered directly with Roshan, says IRC’s Muhammad Jelani, who manages the cash program in Afghanistan. Since even displaced people in 2016 tend to have a cheap mobile phone with them, it’s fairly easy—after confirming their need—to authorize a cash transfer digitally. Cash recipients are then equipped to make purchases at any vendor that uses M-Pesa. With so many M-Pesa vendors, is there a risk of cash falling into the wrong hands, perhaps a small store with Taliban ties? “Neither us nor any agency, including the U.N., has picked up any circumstance where a small vegetable shop has been a front for anything else,” says Haines. There are much more lucrative rackets than skimming a few pennies here and there from displaced people buying rice and tea.
While the IRC can leverage cell phone tech in Nangarhar Province, it’s a different story in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand. There, the Taliban has attacked cell phone towers to disrupt efforts to monitor them, making digital cash transfers impossible. So in Helmand, the IRC finds itself having to leverage the new trend of cash aid in a decidedly old-fashioned way: by tapping into ancient, informal Afghan banking networks known as hawala.
“We can’t have our staff draw out $100,000 from a bank in Lashkargah,” Haines says, referring to Helmand’s capital. “They will be stopped and robbed, if not killed.” But by working with a vetted, preselected hawala agent who has ways of transferring funds through long-established, informal networks, the IRC shifts the risk. Another way the IRC avoids fraud or worse? Paying the hawala agent only after the job is done and IRC field agents have confirmed it. “Once the distribution [of cash] is successfully completed, then we transfer money to the hawala agent,” Haines says.
Whatever the risks might be, Haines says cash is a better bet. He says that any aid worker in Afghanistan knows the familiar sight: You’re walking past a cheap resale market and you see mountains of identical, piled-up goods like gas cans and tents—stuff that likely had been donated by an agency, but wasn’t really needed at the time.
On a recent Skype call from Jalalabad, a city in Nangarhar, two cash recipients named Hakim Khan and Gulwani (“Just Gulwani,” he said, explaining that he goes by the one name) shared their stories. (They spoke Pashto, and an Afghan IRC worker translated.) Both were displaced from their towns, along with the large families they support, during skirmishes between security forces and ISIS. And both made their way with their families to Surkh-Rod, a district in the north of Nangarhar. Khan and Gulwani used to cultivate land and raise livestock, but now they struggle to get by on two days of work per week in a brick factory.
They didn’t need rice or razors. What they needed was help servicing the debt they incurred on new housing in their hurried move. They needed money.
“Cash is better,” said Gulwani.
“We receive the cash at really the right time,” Khan added. “And we thank.”