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The Power of Collective Action: Moving From Cash to Digital

The adoption of digital payment methods by ICSOs and NGOs can galvanize this change.

November 12, 2013

My colleagues will tell you I'm a firm believer in the power of collective action -- a belief that led me to co-found NetHope over a decade ago with Dipak Basu, now Chairman and CEO of Anudip. While much in life is temporary, I was grateful to see that we had stumbled on a lasting principle of collaboration among NGOs, which was on vibrant display at NetHope's annual Global Member Summit last month. This same belief in collaboration and being "better together" are foundational principles of the International Civil Society Centre (ICSC). Similar to NetHope, ICSC is the global action platform for international civil society organizations (ICSOs) to exchange information, learn from each other and initiate collective action. I plan to join the CEOs of ICSOs (which includes the world's largest international NGOs) in Johannesburg this month to explore potential areas for collaboration at their Global Perspectives Conference on navigating disruptive change.

One emerging area where I believe we can use this power of the collective and disruptive technologies is in embracing the movement of delivery of cash assistance to digital technologies. In a very positive way, the mobile phone and digital payment technologies are disruptive. Indeed, one of the trends I see on the immediate horizon is the use of the mobile phone to generate data that originates from the citizen and beneficiary side rather than the one-way push of assistance from humanitarian organizations. This disruption will flip the information flow from ICSOs-down to beneficiaries-up, especially in humanitarian aid. We should consider the case of distributing mobile phones preloaded with cash as not just a new distribution of aid, but also a distribution system of information access and connection. What citizens do with this technology bundled with cash transfers may be more important than what ICSOs do with it during disaster relief efforts to serve their beneficiaries.

The adoption of digital payment methods by ICSOs and NGOs can galvanize this change. While digital payments are not necessarily available or appropriate for all cash transfer programs, there are now a variety of globally accessible applications and platforms that can move cash digitally -- from debit cards used at ATMs, e-vouchers swiped at small stores, or mobile money on entry-level cell phones. These systems need to be rapidly deployable and scalable to meet the needs of NGOs and ICSOs. A single organization's needs will not drive this to scale, but the greater sum of all our needs will; this is why we need to use the power of collaboration. Foreign development agencies, and most notably USAID, are recognizing the transformative power of mobile technology to achieve development objectives. For the past two years, USAID has been leading an increasingly collective donor movement to move all its development programs to digital payments.

At the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), with our network of over 187 National Societies, we recognized the need for an organizational shift from the delivery of in-kind assistance to cash transfers in 2007. We have not yet, however, made the systematic transition to the use of digital delivery systems for cash. While many of our National Societies such as American Red Cross and our British, Danish and New Zealand National Societies are among the first to embrace digital payment platforms, most cash transfer programming initiatives developed by our National Societies make limited use of electronic payments. As the front line for the delivery of aid we will continue to entrust our National Societies to assess and select the best form of cash delivery (which in some cases may still be cash in an envelope) for their programs. However, as the digital world expands, we are determined to promote a more systematic change to digital payments across all of our Societies and incite collective action by our fellow ICSOs.

We're doing our part at IFRC through participation in a number of collaborative initiatives. In July, we partnered with the Cash Learning Partnership to sponsor a global learning event in Kuala Lumpur on cash transfer programming and preparedness. This event included the exploration of mobile and digital payment technologies and resulted in a report that suggests ways for organizations to engage in preparedness for the use of these technologies to deliver cash transfers promptly after a disaster. We're also supporting efforts to rally NGOs around the use of e-payments through NetHope and its ongoing work with USAID. The IFRC/Americas Zone is using proceeds from a Visa Innovation Grant developed in connection with NetHope and funded by Visa to develop a ready-to-use, scalable electronic payment response tool for the rapid implementation of cash transfers to families affected by disaster. We are committed to sharing the resultant learning with our wider humanitarian network of friends and supporters.

As we continue to come together in the spirit of shared learning and collaboration, I encourage my fellow CIOs and CEOs to join me in evaluating digital technology as the preferred system for delivery of cash in our ever-connected world.

Based in Geneva, Switzerland, Ed Happ is the Global CIO of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Chairman of NetHope.

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