Field notes No. 1: Cash cash cash

Carla Lopez
The Airbel Impact Lab


A few weeks ago, we detailed a three-part hypothesis to preventing severe acute malnutrition. Now our team is in southern Niger to kick off, refine, and iterate our prototype. While we’re out here, we’ll be sharing our observations and decision-making process along the way. We’d love to hear your thoughts or recommendations, so drop us a comment below or email us at

Lire cet article en français !

We met with our program manager, Koura Boububacar, who joined the team only a few weeks ago, but who seems to already know everyone as if he’s been here for ages. He’s been busy meeting with community and district leaders to introduce the prototype to them and to get a better understanding of the context where we’ll be working in. Naturally, we riddled him with questions as soon as we met. Here are some of the issues we discussed.

How much cash is the appropriate amount to disburse to caregivers of children under 3 and pregnant women?

Koura suggested that we look at the positive practices we want to promote to get a sense of what the additive cost would be to the household, and then use that as a benchmark. But how do we calculate the costs? Are we basing it on the total number of children under 3 in the household? Or on all of the children in the household, regardless of age and mother (for polygamous households)? After all, resources in the household are typically shared.

We concluded the day by agreeing that we should first understand how resources enter and are distributed within households before answering these questions.

What is the right frequency of cash?

Globally, the IRC uses a variety of financial service providers to distribute cash. This has the advantage of added transparency, security, tracking cash use, and linking unbanked people to financial services. In Niger, the IRC often distributes cash through microfinance institutions for transparency and efficiency. In other IRC Niger programs, cash is distributed monthly, so it stands to reason that we follow suit.

But here’s the argument for more frequent cash distribution

The Sprout prototype is a learning exercise, not a typical project. During the course of this prototype, we need the flexibility to make changes in response to client feedback. We anticipate that the first cash disbursement is likely to be used for immediate needs, such as paying off debt or purchasing cooking oil. After a couple of cash payments, households may shift their spending to other items. If we only disburse cash monthly, we may end up with only 5 observations of cash use and therefore lose the opportunity to see changes in cash use over time and to respond, if necessary, before the end of the prototype.

The argument against weekly/bi-weekly cash distribution is that for communities far from markets who may make mostly monthly purchases, frequent cash distribution may leave them with uncomfortable amounts of cash on hand.

So we’ve decided:

  • Once the communities are identified, link the frequency of cash distribution to the frequency of major market purchases (Weekly markets? Biweekly? Monthly?)
  • Collect information on cash weekly, regardless of cash distribution frequency (this is counter the IRC practice of minimizing cash recall inquiries during project implementation to reduce the burden on clients)
  • Seek recommendations from our IRC Niger Economic Recovery and Development (ERD) team who are well-versed in cash distribution

Who should be targeted for cash?

In this region of Niger, where polygamy is common, households may have many wives and may vary in size from 7 to 30 people. If one wife meets our selection criteria (pregnant women and caregivers of children under 3), but resources are shared in the household (both across wives, but also across children — regardless of age), then should the unit being targeted should be the household, not the individual? This would mean that large households would get a proportionally larger sum than smaller households. We’ve decided not to rack our brains with this since the ERD team is sure to have guidance for us.

More updates to follow in the coming weeks!



Carla Lopez
The Airbel Impact Lab

Health Design Innovation Lead for the Airbel Impact Lab at the International Rescue Committee