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Flexibility Is Key in Today’s Humanitarian Environment

Power of Ideas
Flexibility Is Key in Today’s Humanitarian Environment

One month into the war in Ukraine, more than half of Ukraine’s children are now displaced within the country or fled to neighboring countries. They are met by aid workers from UNICEF and other relief agencies delivering essential services. Safe water. Food. First aid and medicine. Counseling. Referrals for shelter and transportation.

And many families forced to flee are getting cash—direct “cash transfers” as they are called in the humanitarian community. Putting money into the hands of displaced persons gives them buying power to procure what they need most for their families, and it does more: It returns to them agency, dignity, empowered decision-making, and some sense of control in the midst of the chaos around them.

Cash transfers are now a well-proven methodology with a strong base of evidence showing they are an effective and efficient means of delivering aid and easing suffering. We’ve come to trust that people in crises know what they need and will use the resources they are given to make the best decisions for their families. This approach reflects a larger movement within humanitarian and development work to push decision-making closer and closer to the people and communities impacted by crisis and poverty.

We’ve come to trust that people in crises know what they need and will use the resources they are given to make the best decisions for their families.

This movement and power shift is also happening at a larger scale. The US government’s foreign aid agencies are promising to set aside a portion of their grant dollars to directly fund local service providers. International non-governmental organizations are rebalancing power with their local partners so they can lead on decision-making. Those of us who interact with private donors are asking them to consider more flexible—rather than more restrictive—funding with the goal of giving our local teams, their partners, and communities more say over the activities to prioritize.

One recent initiative UNICEF has started with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the “joint investment mechanism.” Flexible funding is received from the Gates Foundation and leveraged with other UNICEF funding (thus the “joint investment”) to teams in three African countries. These teams will determine how to use the money for the greatest impact in their communities. They will have the flexibility to invest in essential elements of policy work, infrastructure, supplies, workforce training, community-based health education, and more to promote good health and nutrition, prevent illness, and protect against the spread of infectious diseases and epidemics. And, importantly, they will have resources to fill in gaps of inequity in services too often left unsupported by highly-restricted grant funding.

Many donors have wanted, understandably, to restrict their funding to a specific project or activity. They want to accomplish something tangible. They want service organizations to be accountable for delivering a specific set of results. This is all good. It causes humanitarian and development professionals to meet high expectations. But flexible funding allows organizations to be more agile and respond more effectively to unexpected challenges like the displacement of 60 percent of a country’s child population in one month, as we have seen in Ukraine.

Cash transfers and the joint investment mechanism are just two examples of what we might call “trust-based” philanthropy. MacKenzie Scott is championing this most visibly right now with the billions of dollars in unrestricted giving she is putting in the hands of local decision-makers—the educators and social service workers delivering services on the front lines. She has vetted them, for sure, and then she is trusting them. We need more of that. We need donors to give more flexibly. We need global organizations to rebalance power toward local decision-makers. We need to put more cash in the hands of refugees and other displaced families.

The good news is we can trust and verify. As mentioned earlier, there is a growing body of evidence showing that cash transfers work and that local decision-making delivers results. We will keep building that evidence. In the meantime, let’s keep shifting power in the direction of local communities and families. They’ll make the right decisions.