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Catherine Nabulon of Abulon, Kenya, uses an e-wallet card distributed by the Hunger Safety Net Programme to cope with the effects of ongoing drought. The e–wallet gives her more flexibility, dignity, and the ability to make her own choices to address immediate needs. Photo: Joy Obuya/Oxfam

Why digital cash is the future of emergency aid

Nigel Tricks is the regional director of Oxfam in the Horn, East, and Central Africa
Two weeks ago, I visited Oxfam’s drought response in eastern Somaliland. We drove across a stark landscape; what should be a pastoralist heartland is now completely devoid of water and almost empty of livestock. Not a blade of grass and barely a green leaf to be seen. The carcasses of camels, always the last to succumb to drought, littered the landscape and we soon lost count of their number. The drought is severe and it is taking a similar toll across Somalia’s borders and into neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.

Most people we met had settled near dwindling water sources that were either just enough to sustain a handful of families or unfit for human consumption altogether. Clustered around every town was a growing camp of internally displaced families, now dependent on the delivery of essential relief from government and aid agencies.

What I saw this time in Somaliland convinced me, if it were needed, that aid is changing. Telephone masts delivering 3G and 4G phone signals stand sentinel on hilltops across the country, and access to a signal and a registered SIM card means access to a wonder of modern Africa: digital cash.  Any family—regardless of where they live—with access to a phone, can receive money sent at the touch of a computer button from the nation’s capital.

Through a contracted telephone company, money is transferred to a registered SIM card-based account and can be withdrawn from local traders. People are free to decide what to use the money for and when, enabling them to play a more active role in meeting their own needs. One man I met in Somaliland told me, “We can decide and buy what food and how much water we need or whether to invest in hay for a lamb or education for a child. The market will deliver; we know the traders and the main roads are good.”

Moving to a new model

It is clear – humanitarian agencies now have the absolute obligation to accelerate the transition from direct relief to unconditional cash transfers as the first and the default response. Indeed Oxfam has significantly boosted its current drought response with an increased proportion of cash. In early May, 1,750 families in Somaliland each received $140, expected to meet their most immediate needs for three months.

The traditional model of humanitarian response where food, water, and other essentials arrive on the back of a truck has always played a vital role as it is immediate. Cash transfers are a more efficient and cost effective way of getting help directly where it is needed and are equally accountable to tax payer’s money.

Direct distributions also run the risk of duplication as different actors may end up delivering different types of aid on different days, locking families in winding queues in distribution centers, unable to focus on other activities. Worse still, they may bypass fragile local markets, providing basics that would otherwise be locally sourced.

Empowering individuals to make their own choices

Though less visible, digital cash transfers can be significantly more effective. They enable communities to organize their own water trucks and food deliveries, or buy essential medical supplies in local health centers, thereby reinforcing local businesses and institutions, rather than replacing them. Communities can even band together to repair water harvesting infrastructure, in hopeful anticipation of the rains.

Emergency responses in pastoral areas tend to end with some form of restocking exercise where families are provided with a number of livestock to help restore their traditional livelihoods. Witnessing the growing fragility of that same livelihood for some pastoralists, we must consider that restocking is not for everyone.

Pastoralists resettling in Garadag district, Somaliland, after a 37-mile journey on a truck with their animals. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

If the same livestock is monetized, families can either buy the very animals they seek at choice markets, or opt to inject the cash as restart capital for a small business. Others may prefer to use this money to migrate to urban areas in search of paid employment or save some of the allocation for a rainy day.

The benefits cut across. By combining digital cash transfers with market stimulation, aid agencies can avoid cumbersome logistical scale ups, and deliver assistance more quickly, accountably, and efficiently, particularly in hard-to-reach areas. A 2015 study by the Cash Learning Partnership on the value of cash transfers in emergencies suggests that cash assistance is up to 30 percent cheaper to deliver compared to its in-kind equivalent. As we get better at cash distribution and it becomes more mainstream, this difference will only increase.

In addition, aid agencies can build on established social protection programs, such as Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Programme, that are proving themselves in helping vulnerable families take early action and cushion themselves against the worst of a crisis. Through this mechanism, Oxfam is currently providing cash assistance to drought-affected families in Turkana and Wajir Counties, simply by topping up the money on cards already allocated to registered households.

Saving lives is the ultimate goal in any surge response, but as crises like the one in Somaliland worsen against a back drop of advancing technology and improving infrastructure, aid must keep pace. Aid has to be smarter.


Severe drought, climate change, conflict, and poor governance have pushed millions of people across South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen to the brink of starvation. Oxfam and its local partners are striving to ensure families have access to clean water, food, sanitation services, and are also providing cash, so families can buy what they need. Help us expand our response.

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