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  • 9 February 2017

Counting cash in humanitarian contexts

This report analyses the monitoring of cash-based programmes in 2015 and proposes a number of recommendations for improving the tracking.


Alexandra Spencer, Charlotte Lattimer

There is growing evidence of the efficiency and effectiveness of cash-based programming in humanitarian assistance, and 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’. This included an agreement to increase the use and coordination of cash-based programming.

Until now however, there has not been a clear baseline on the current volume of humanitarian assistance delivered in the form of cash and vouchers. Our recent report, Counting cash: Tracking humanitarian expenditure on cash-based programming, published jointly with the Overseas Development Institute, aims to fill that gap and sets out recommendations for improving tracking of investments in cash-based programming.

Through an extensive data gathering exercise, we have established the most accurate estimate yet of overall global spending on humanitarian cash-based programming. Our data shows that the overall value of cash-based programming in 2015 was approximately US$1.9 billion. UN agencies accounted for around two-thirds of the total; and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for just under a third. We estimate that 51% of cash-based programming was delivered in the form of cash transfers and 49% in vouchers. Most of these transfers (84%) were provided unconditionally – without qualifying conditions that a beneficiary must fulfil to receive a cash transfer or voucher, such as ‘cash for work’ initiatives.

Cash-based programming by organisation type, 2015

Source: Development Initiatives based on data supplied by agencies operating cash and voucher programmes. Notes: This data is partial and representative of only the organisations where an accurate breakdown is possible; for this reason, data for UNHCR is not included. This figure also excludes a US$3.0 million contribution directly implemented by a government agency. RCRC: Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement; WFP: World Food programme

Our estimate of the volume of cash-based programming in 2015 required a labour-intensive data gathering and analysis exercise. It is important therefore to develop and sustain a more streamlined and systematic means of reporting on programming by cash, voucher or in-kind assistance. But getting it right will need a concerted effort to develop and align systems and standards, and ensure that the information generated is well analysed and used.


With this in mind, there are a number of practical recommendations in the report for improving the tracking of investments in cash-based programming. The main ones are:

  • All actors – donors and implementing organisations – advocate for and invest in the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Financial Tracking Service (FTS) and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) as the best long-term options for systematic global reporting on cash, voucher and in-kind expenditure.
  • Agencies implementing cash-based programmes agree on a standard template for the reporting, collection and collation of ‘who does what, where’ data on assistance by modality, with cash- and voucher-specific fields, and coordinate its use at country-level. This data can be linked with the funding data on the FTS to give a picture of actual spending and delivery by modality.
  • All relevant actors are consistent with the use of terminology and data on cash-based programming. That paves the way for agreeing on common ways to disaggregate the data and estimate the relevant programming costs that agencies incur as they build up internal capacity on cash. This financial data, if combined effectively with comparable data on results and impact, can be used to support decision-making on the best way of providing assistance in any given context.

All of this will require coordination, at both technical and policy levels, combined with strong leadership and direction. Now is the time to make it happen – while the World Humanitarian Summit is fresh in our minds, and the will to make progress against Grand Bargain commitments is strong.

‘Counting cash’ is an essential part of making humanitarian action more efficient and effective for people affected by crises.

The Global Humanitarian Assistance report 2017 will feature analysis of the very latest data on cash programming. The report will be published on this website on Wednesday 21 June 2017.

Image credit: Rashad Saeed/Oxfam