Cash Learning Partnership: Turning Cash into Aid, Part 3

Kendra Hughbanks, ACF's CaLP assistant, tells us what she's learning about Cash Based Interventions during her month in the Philippines.
ACF staff helps with program enrollment.
Credit: Kendra Hughbanks

Kendra Hughbanks is working for ACF International as the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) Assistant. Though based in New York, she is spending a month in the Philippines to focus on case studies that illuminate emergency intervention and recovery. This post is the third in a series. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4.


Learn from the past—it’s old, good advice, and it’s an essential principle for the kind of work Action Against Hunger does. Funding is never unlimited, so improving on efficiency is a way to do more without spending more.

In the Philippines, I studied two cash-based interventions (CBIs): one conducted by Oxfam and another by Action Against Hunger. Comparing these two case studies led to some interesting findings.

In urban Manila, Oxfam opted to use tangible cash—as opposed to a voucher or debit card system—in their response to the flooding caused by Typhoon Ketsana in September 2009. The purpose of this intervention was to address immediate food security issues, restart income-generating activities, and support livelihoods. Oxfam chose cash for a few reasons: the program scale was large, with thousands needing emergency assistance; the area of implementation was in urban temporary shelters, where people had the greatest, most immediate need; and there was still local access to markets. The program provided flexibility to beneficiaries, giving them power over what to buy, in what quantities, of what quality, and when to make purchases.

In the second case study, ACF responded to the more recent and smaller-scale flooding in Cotabato City and Sultan Kudarat, part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), with a CBI to meet immediate need for food and basic non-food items. As in the Oxfam case, the necessary preconditions were in place for cash to be successful—enough markets were open, they had the commodities people needed, they were willing and able to accept cash or vouchers, and the cash itself could be delivered and spent safely. Given local security issues, and the limited time ACF had to establish contracts with local vendors, we decided to use commodity vouchers with a few larger stores. The team also tested distributing cash through debit cards with a small group of beneficiaries. The pilot program informed ACF about how to use debit cards in future interventions and created the opportunity to test a practical, scalable medium for cash transfers.

I was fortunate to actually be able to visit the site of ACF’s intervention in Cotabato City, and I got a stark lesson in the importance of seeing for ones self—while Cotabato was described in the reports I read as an urban area, the “city” could barely be described as a town. This matters, because what works in a city doesn’t necessarily work in other contexts.

While I was there, I was also able to meet some of the people who received cash assistance during ACF’s intervention. One woman said that her debit card did not work at first, but ACF gave her a paper voucher instead to quickly resolve the issue. She said she preferred the vouchers, but when I told her the debit card could be refilled remotely, without her having to return to ACF’s staging area, she agreed that cards had some advantages—when they work reliably. Another beneficiary, a very old man, told me that he encountered no such problems with his debit card.

Comparing the case studies, the most striking finding is that cash interventions are flexible and can be used among groups that vary in size, demographics, and community structure. As long as the pre-conditions are met—markets are functioning, they’re selling what people need, they can accommodate cash or vouchers, and the security situation is acceptable—cash interventions can be used in high-density urban environments as well as less dense, more agrarian population centers. From my personal experience speaking with beneficiaries, I learned that cash interventions have another, less studied benefit—they help people feel like they have regained some control their lives during trying times. This benefit is difficult to calculate, but it’s very real and one I was glad to see.