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Cashless cash: financial inclusion or surveillance humanitarianism?

Analysis / Humanitarian Action / Humanitarian Principles / New Technologies 7 mins read

Cashless cash: financial inclusion or surveillance humanitarianism?

Village near Baidoa, Somalia. A man reads a text message confirming that a digital payment has been sent by the ICRC. The money is wired directly to the mobile phones of the people affected by the severe drought, allowing for secure and transparent transfers.

Cash has been an exceptional vector of progress in humanitarian action, empowering people, protecting dignity, mitigating the negative secondary effects of in-kind assistance, improving accountability to affected populations, increasing participation in humanitarian and development responses, supporting local economies and, last but not least, boosting operational efficiency, which in turn saves some humanitarian cash. But what happens when cash goes digital, bringing with it the risks of exclusion, discrimination, or surveillance? In this post, ICRC Policy Advisor Pierrick Devidal opens an honest conversation as to whether and how humanitarians should continue using digital cash.

‘Cash’ is no longer a dirty word in the humanitarian sector. Over the last two decades, it has evolved – from a synonym for operational agility, to a relatively niche innovative humanitarian approach, and now to a global standard of good humanitarian assistance practice. People love it, humanitarians love it, and donors love it. It is reasonable to say that its weaknesses are largely compensated by the benefits it brings. Cash is a humanitarian no brainer.

And maybe that’s the problem.

Because cash is no longer cash. It is dematerialized and digitalized. It is all forms of digital payments including prepaid cards, electronic vouchers, and cryptocurrencies – and it has your name on it. Unlike real physical cash, digital payments are linked to identities and personal information. As a result, they can identify, they can exclude, and they can discriminate. Yet, falling in line with the global digital transformation, humanitarian programmes using cash transfers have turned, en masse, to digital solutions.

There are logical reasons to consider digital cash a good solution – if cash has been shown to enhance autonomy and resilience, and the world is going digital, why should people affected by conflict be denied access to something most of us use on a daily basis?

In parallel, the dark side of digital solutions is emerging and the over-enthusiastic and relatively naïve fascination bias for digital technologies is passé. The infodemic, massive cyber-attacks, data protection scandals and ‘surveillance capitalism’ are shining a light on the paradox of progress and the dark side of digital technologies, calling for a more sober approach. It seems that the humanitarian sector is also starting to realize that, maybe, digital solutions are not always a no brainer.

And maybe that is a good thing.

As recent articles have highlighted, there may be a case against digital cash. While the cashless cash trend is accelerating under the influence of economic actors, donors and the COVID-19 pandemic, critics are pointing to the increasing risks of ‘data colonialism’, ‘surveillance humanitarianism’, ‘techno-solutionism’, ‘data injustice’ or ‘digital exclusion’. What cash can do, digital cash can do in reverse. The critics raise uncomfortable but important questions for the humanitarian sector.

In short, it seems that humanitarians are finally taking a deep breath and a step back from the race to adjust to the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and realizing that in contexts where violence and persecutions are widespread, we need to talk about digital solutions and cashless cash.

Cashless cash vs. principled humanitarian action

There are many entry points and angles to this conversation. Some of them more obvious than others. There are technical dimensions that are related to operational considerations, risk management or data protection questions. There are strategic dimensions that are related to questions of positioning, competition and relevance. And there are political and ethical dimensions. It is a multilayered humanitarian puzzle.

Digital payments may create significant interference with the fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, commonly referred to as NIIHA. It is however not clear yet whether, and how much, these tensions are manageable.

Digital technologies, including digital payment mechanisms, are not neutral. They are aligned with the political objectives of those who create and promote them, including tech companies, banks and governments. In countries affected by armed conflict or other situations of violence, these actors are – to put it mildly – not always neutral. Being associated with them or their objectives can raise perception issues and put the neutrality of the humanitarian actors who use them into question (and ultimately, jeopardize their security).

Because digital payments are often carried out in partnership with financial service providers that have significant control over the parameters of digital payments, including flows of personal and sometimes sensitive data, the operational independence of the humanitarian organizations who use them can become compromised.

Those same financial service providers operate under different legal frameworks and have a different mandate (i.e. profit), so partnering with them may create tensions with the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate and deliver with impartiality – based on needs only – and not on needs and, for instance, States’ security considerations.

Finally, by replacing the human element by a digital interface, some are concerned that we are sacrificing some crucial components of humanity.

Cashless cash and ‘do no harm

The ‘do no harm’ principle is sacrosanct in the humanitarian sector – or rather, humanitarian actors always try to do as little harm as possible, by mitigating the negative impact that their interventions and activities may bring for the affected populations they serve, and to the environments in which they operate. But with digital payments becoming the standard, there is a feeling that humanitarian organizations really have no choice but to adopt them.

That pressure trickles down. Even when we may be able to identify some of the risks attached to digital payments, and without necessarily having the solutions yet to mitigate those risks effectively, we offer digital payment solutions to affected populations, and we don’t always offer them an alternative, particularly given that some say we live in a post-consent world. Do recipients really have a choice? Are we not transferring risks and this lack of choice to them; or, if we collectively decide to stop using digital payments, are we taking away power and making a paternalizing choice for affected populations?

These are not easy questions, and there are even bigger ones. Is it realistic or ethical to pause digital payments in humanitarian programmes? Can we really afford the human and financial cost of forgoing proven lifesaving assistance or of reverting to in-kind, which can be less effective? Do we need more regulation, or a plan B?

These are existential questions, because they relate to trust in humanitarian action. And the new oil is not data; it is trust. We invite our fellow humanitarians, States, the private sector and, most importantly, affected people, to join us in the conversation.

Editor’s note: We encourage you to add your comments below, join the discussion on Twitter or LinkedIn, or submit a blog post to

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