Lessons from the Cash Learning Partnership in driving large-scale change

Aug 15 · 4 min read

by Karen Peachey, Director of the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP)

In her last post Karen Peachey explored the role of the Cash Learning Partnership in supporting the scaling of cash. In this follow-up post, she outlines the three big lessons they’ve learned.

Tailors at work in Oxfam funded tailoring studio. Photo Credit Amy Christian / Oxfam

This blog post is based on the keynote presentation delivered at the Humanitarian Innovation Exchange, which took place on 26 June 2019. The event was jointly organised by Elrha, Leiden University’s Centre for Innovation and the Dutch Coalition for Humanitarian Innovation (DCHI).

In the last few years we have seen a huge increase in the use of cash[1], from $2 billion in 2015 to $4.8 billion in 2018. Cash is also becoming more mainstream. In the 2011 edition of the SPHERE handbook there was a single line on cash; in the latest edition it has been integrated throughout the handbook.

At scale, the use of cash entails changes in the way we plan, implement and work together, it changes power dynamics, and, ultimately, challenges the way we think about our role as humanitarians.

When we look at the change that has happened, it is important to acknowledge that the humanitarian system is, on the whole, change resistant. It is decentralised and there is no single executive authority, so the process of scaling innovation cannot follow a blueprint plan. Rather, the case for doing things differently must be made with the many interconnected actors that make up the ecosystem. Creating change demands flexibility, networked thinking, a huge degree of determination and lots of patience.

Through our work we have learnt many lessons about how to drive large-scale change in the humanitarian system. Here are three big ones:

Lesson 1. Evidence is not enough to drive change — it’s about incentives and time

The evidence to support the increased use of cash was available early but evidence was not enough. Changing minds, hearts and business models takes sustained effort and time, presenting and re-presenting evidence in enough different forums to create pressure, which translates into changed approaches, which turns into critical mass, which turns into political commitment.

At CaLP one of our roles is to identify the levers of influence, change agents and the vehicles for sustaining that change. We then keep pressure on key actors and promote mass change. Our role is to make the case for cash until it cannot be ignored. And then when we think we are making progress, we need to lift the bar and push for further improvements. We constantly need to appeal to the incentives and pressures that shape programming choices, not just talk about the evidence of what works.

Lesson 2. Making a change at scale is a lesson in complexity

So the evidence is there and commitments have been made, yet still things are not changing. Why? Because change is complex, especially when it involves thousands of people and multiple processes.

For individuals, the use of cash means learning new things and adopting new ways of working. This can be empowering and exciting or challenging and threatening. It challenges how we think and ways of working that have become embedded. It requires new skill-sets and presents a horizon where some jobs are no longer needed in their current form or in the numbers they were before.

For organisations, it requires a shift in the mindset of staff from field teams to fundraising. It involves changes to policies, systems and processes. It involves influencing stakeholders and managing media reactions.

For system-wide change, it requires that individual actions are taken by thousands of people across hundreds of organisations in multiple complex contexts. And as if that isn’t enough, it requires that changes are made to the architecture within which we work. The use of cash has raised questions about the way the humanitarian system is organised and how cash programming should be coordinated. Despite asks from implementing agencies and donors alike, some of these questions remain unresolved.

To create change, you have to understand and work at multiple levels. There are no easy paths that guarantee results.

Lesson 3. What’s good for recipients isn’t always easy for aid providers.

Cash assistance means handing over power and choice to recipients. It means that humanitarian actors no longer make all the decisions, instead becoming the facilitators of individuals’ and communities’ own recovery.

At scale, the use of cash poses challenges to humanitarian agency business models and even to their vision of themselves. Unsurprisingly, such a degree of change can foster resistance that expresses itself in many ways. Ensuring change is driven by those we serve and not by agency preferences is a critical and continuing challenge.

There are instances where what is easiest or best for humanitarian actors doesn’t line up with what’s best for recipients. We are fighting a battle that is dwarfed by the backdrop of ever-increasing humanitarian needs, rising climate migration, continued erosion of respect for international humanitarian law, and dwindling resources. But it is becoming very clear that the power of the network — of bringing together different types of organisations with different ideas, strengths and approaches — is the only way we can tackle some of these complex challenges.

Taking innovation to scale across the humanitarian system doesn’t happen easily. But we believe that convening around a common vision and connecting people — thinkers and doers, local and international, big and small — is what gives us the best possible chance of making this happen.

Want to learn more? Read the first part of this blog: How the Cash Learning Partnership supports the scaling of cash.

[1] For ease of reading, in this blog we use ‘cash’ as shorthand for ‘cash and voucher assistance’ as defined in the CaLP Glossary.


We are Elrha. A global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.


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We are Elrha. We are a global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.



We are Elrha. A global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.

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