A group of NGO staff working in Lebanon have written a reflection on their experience of cash programming. They prefer to remain anonymous. They have asked me to share it, in order to foster debate.

Ben Parker
Senior Editor

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Cash aid for refugees in Lebanon is paralysed. Donors and UN agencies are in a deadlock on how to organise the next phase of multi-purpose cash delivery. The donors demanded that multiple UN agencies and NGOs currently involved stand aside. They wanted a single body to handle the bulk of payments, and to be monitored by an independent third party.

The new approach has forced agencies to do some soul-searching and re-think their traditional roles. Several NGO staff reflect on the controversy, how they have come to welcome a radical shakeup, and how to reclaim ethical purpose and humanitarian principles.

The “260,000” is what Syrian refugees in Lebanon most commonly ask about and request from humanitarian agencies. 260,000 Lebanese pounds is the amount of multi-purpose cash assistance (MPCA) that is transferred per family every month for the poorest refugees by UN agencies or NGOs since 2014. Most (although not all) of the families who are eligible for MPCA also receive “e-vouchers” from the World Food Programme (WFP) to buy food. But the MPCA is unrestricted in its use and gives refugees the freedom to buy (some) of what their family needs in a country where living costs are very high.

However, future funding for MPCA in Lebanon has become uncertain, with UN agencies and donors deadlocked on the allocation of $85 million. Most of this money is now sitting in a bank account while thousands of refugees were recently told that they will not be receiving any more monthly support. Why?

Donors demanded more streamlined and cost-efficient delivery of cash-based assistance with greater accountability and transparency. UN agencies claimed the recently developed Lebanon One Unified Inter-Agency System for E-Cards (LOUISE) is a successful example of gathering diverse aid actors around the delivery of cash-based humanitarian programming; achievements they say would be jeopardized by the implementation of the new model proposed by the donors of that $85 million.

Recently the UN — trying to reassert leadership of the cash response that constitutes about 50% of the humanitarian assistance provided in Lebanon ($550 million in 2016) — gathered about 70 people at a five-star Beirut hotel to focus on a “vision for the future” of cash for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The workshop had no action points at the end, and — despite interesting contributions — did not address at all the current, immediate problem that the UN’s inflexibility about how it wants to run cash-based assistance has brought about (they say donors’ intransigence hasn’t helped).

The new model

“The use of cash transfers… brought out the best and worst aspects of the international humanitarian system”, according to a case study on Ukraine by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) , adding “strategy and coordination became highly political, mandate-driven and largely removed from analysis on the best way to assist people.”

The same could be said for Lebanon. The deadlock comes from a lack of political will to change (for the better); it’s a usual battle for power and money based on an incredibly strong duopoly between WFP and UNHCR.
WFP and UNHCR are the most likely agencies to win such a large contract. But so far they were unwilling to agree the demands of the donors’ new model to:

- become more cost efficient and have only one of their organisations deliver a comprehensive unrestricted cash transfer (bringing together MPCA and food e-vouchers);

- become (once and for all?) accountable under the eye of a third party monitoring agent and a governance body;

- shake up the inter-agency coordination system (inefficient and in silos that has not been rationalized to best suit the response);

The new model was also supposed to help us think of an adequate — and smart(er) — system of aid in a protracted crisis. One that could make the paradigm shift from short-term unpredictable humanitarian funding to a reliable, longer-term safety net for the families affected. The task is not easy, nor can the way forward be reproduced from elsewhere, but we certainly won’t get there if major players are not willing to try.

Far from the technical discussions, the story of cash in Lebanon is also a story of consolidating power, and a search for our role.

The dash for cash

Starting in 2013 we all — UN, donors and NGOs alike — ‘ran’ to cash. We dove into implementation, with an imperative to deliver quickly and respond to urgent needs, without having the time to fully grasp the overall approach.
As the operation matured, NGOs had partial, mediocre and opaque information at best. Many agreements important to both frontline NGOs and affected communities were being made behind closed doors between the WFP/UNHCR duopoly. But we were in a system in which — despite the millions of USD invested — top UN management in the response provided little leadership and vision on cash programming.

The LOUISE platform we ended up with, despite all the efforts to streamline and harmonize, was not a system that promoted ‘diversity and comparative advantage’. We were in a system of multiple inefficient layers that didn’t adequately reflect lessons learnt or what was most efficient and convenient for the end user (the beneficiary).

We were in a system in which, for example, a simple beneficiary list went through four different steps (e.g. Lebanon Cash Consortium LCC-partner to LCC lead to WFP to the Bank) before reaching the service provider and getting the money transferred. A system in which there was almost no place left to think of what mattered: people.

How we (re)discovered our role …

Empowered by millions granted by ECHO and DFID, some NGOs among us got into the cash ‘game’. The Lebanon Cash Consortium (LCC) was formed with six NGOs — mostly big names. Yes, the LCC had a seat at the table. Yes, the LCC had the clout to negotiate bilaterally with UNHCR and WFP. And yes, the LCC increased NGOs’ ability to continue to push for a quality-driven and evidence-based response which put beneficiaries at the centre. But, did this improve transparency from the UNHCR/WFP duopoly? Not really. Did the LCC understand the full scope of the game and what was at stake? Not sure. It failed to be responsive to changes in the context and it didn’t get its own governance structure right, or adapt and evolve, and eventually this led to the demise of the LCC.

Along the way we learned important lessons about accountability, transparency, information management, data and targeting -and power.

We, as NGOs, got ourselves into a game that we couldn’t possibly win, a game where the rules were never really written by us –but by much more powerful actors. A game that was by nature linked to other battles we had already somehow lost: battles against UNHCR’s monolithic triple-hat of coordinator/implementer/donor; battles (that were barely ever started actually) against UNHCR’s monopoly on all beneficiary data and information management (IM) systems (in which we never really knew what happened behind the screen, and therefore had many reasons to question the quality and inclusiveness of the data); battles against WFP lack of transparency on targeting and e-voucher assistance being based on beneficiary registration status instead of on needs and vulnerabilities alone.

Our experience since 2013 brings us to naturally embrace a model like the one proposed by ECHO and DFID back in December 2016, especially the independent third party monitoring concept. It’s the ultimate learning: we need multi-stakeholder oversight and accountability for decisions that affect hundreds of thousands of refugees, but we do not need multiple actors to load cash an ATM card; this is how we can benefit the communities.

As NGOs our role is in the essential before and after of cash. This is the hard part, and actually what matters the most: the relation to people. To ensure the appropriate selection of beneficiaries, ensure that beneficiaries understand how and why selection is done, to continue to assess the relevance and appropriateness of what is being delivered and how, to monitor, to evaluate , to learn and of course above all, to ensure accountability to communities.

Time for change

Some asked if this change should come from donors — shouldn’t the frontline agencies lead? Maybe.Change should come from the most forward-looking stakeholder at a given time; no matter who that is. And on this issue, the donors were the ones.

So now is the time to move. Now or never, it is time to make the right change so we don’t add a few additional pages to the history of aid mismanagement in this region of the world.

Now is the time to look ourselves in the mirror and act (while waiting for our governments to make ‘actual’ contributions to peace in Syria so we stop talking about aid in neighboring countries altogether). We all need to be accountable, to the communities we serve, and for the tax dollars of the communities who ultimately fund our work.

Now is the time for the UN to accept that they will have to be more accountable, and that there is no pride in being a banal avatar of a profoundly unequal international (aid) system.

Each of the actors should do what it does best, UN should use their capacity to operate at scale to serve communities.

We, NGOs, should work in the before and after, provide a balance of power to UN agencies, work with donors, raise the voices of beneficiaries, advocate for greater accountability and challenge ourselves to always explore and improve this, often times, hard to attain principle.

We need to play to each of our strengths to improve the response — now.