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Counting cash: tracking humanitarian expenditure on cash-based programming

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Alexandra Spencer, Chloe Parrish and Charlotte Lattimer

Key messages

  • Data from aid agencies suggests that, in 2015, at least $1.9 billion was spent on humanitarian assistance in the form of cash-based responses (51% cash and 49% vouchers).

  • There is currently no systematic tracking of the volume of humanitarian assistance delivered in the form of cash and vouchers. As such, the international system is not ready to report on its cash-related commitments from the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit and the Grand Bargain.

  • The overarching barrier to better data on expenditure by modality is the lack of a single, comprehensive systematic means of reporting on programming by cash, voucher and in-kind assistance. Establishing a common approach requires a concerted global effort to develop and align systems and standards, promote comprehensive reporting, and ensure that information is analysed and used.

Executive summary

Assistance provided as cash or vouchers to people affected by humanitarian crises can offer greater choice and empowerment compared with assistance provided as goods in kind. At the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, many of the world’s largest humanitarian donors and agencies made a set of commitments, as part of a ‘Grand Bargain’, to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of humanitarian assistance. Among the commitments was an agreement to ‘increase the use and coordination of cash-based programming’ (Grand Bargain, 2016).

There is currently no accurate, globally comparable data on the volume of assistance delivered in the form of cash and vouchers, though previous research has provided estimates (Development Initiatives, 2012-2016; ODI, 2015; Development Initiatives, 2015). Reliable and comparable data is needed to accurately monitor progress towards the Grand Bargain commitments and hold signatories to account, but also to continue improving the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance for crisis-affected populations.

This working paper aims to begin filling the data gap by providing a baseline estimate on the volume and nature of cash-based programming in 2015. Most of the largest implementing agencies of cash and voucher programming have provided us with data on their organisational expenditure relating to cash-based humanitarian programming. By combining this with data from secondary sources, we have established the most accurate estimate yet of overall global expenditure.

Our research suggests that, in 2015, at least $1.9 billion was spent on humanitarian assistance in the form of cash or vouchers. Of this total, two-thirds ($1.2 billion) was delivered by UN agencies, $541 million by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), $102 million by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and $3.9 million by ‘others’.1

Where disaggregation of the total is possible, the vast majority (84%) of cash-based programming was provided unconditionally, while just under half (49%) was delivered in the form of vouchers. The majority of voucher programming is delivered by the World Food Programme (WFP); in 2015, approximately 80% of its cash-based programming was delivered in the form of vouchers. According to our data, NGOs appear to deliver much more of their assistance in the form of cash – with 86% of transfers provided by NGOs delivered in this way.

Data reported to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS) indicates that the largest donors of cash- or voucher-based programmes in 2015 were the US, EU institutions, and the UK. Collectively, they provided an estimated 74% of total donor-allocated funding to identified programmes. The largest four recipient countries combined – Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan – received almost three-quarters (73%) of all funding for cash-based programming.

We urge caution when using the baseline estimate to calculate the proportion of total international humanitarian assistance provided in the form of cash and vouchers: our data is derived from different sources than those used to calculate annual amounts of total international humanitarian assistance.2 However, to put the data into context and taking this caveat into consideration, cashbased programming was equivalent to approximately 7% of international humanitarian assistance in 2015.

Read the full report on ODI.