The benefits and challenges of cash transfer programmes in humanitarian aid delivery

EyePay® Phone / Mobile Wallet Authentication
EyePay® Phone / Mobile Wallet Authentication

Will cash transfer programmes be redundant anytime soon?

Since their beginnings in the late 1990s, cash transfer programmes have grown to be a vital alternative to traditional ‘in-kind’ humanitarian aid. In the past five years we have seen a trebling of cash delivery over in-kind aid support. A cash-based transfer is a cheaper and more versatile solution that empowers beneficiaries to utilise support and social protection in a range of situations. Over time, cash-based transfer programmes have evolved to include innovations such as mobile money/mobile wallets and apps for a convenient and fast transfer of humanitarian relief. In this article, we will examine the successes and challenges of cash transfer models that also incorporate mobile wallets. We will then look at the benefits of iris recognition technology and how proof-of-life biometrics can open up daily regular services. From accurate identity authentication and liveness detection to financial inclusion and targeted cash-out, all whilst preventing double dipping, ghost beneficiaries and eliminating fraud.

Mobile wallet traction

The Safaricom M-Pesa mobile wallet service is an example of successful Fintech deployment in the African continent, in particular, with over 53 million people using it monthly. Originally developed for the unbanked and underbanked, mobile money wallets have now been adopted for more general use as they can empower individuals, businesses and communities, by giving a more convenient access to vital funds. This, in turn, provides opportunities for economic growth. However, providing a mobile wallet alone - whether on a smartphone or other device - is not usually the only requirement. Sufficient on-boarding identity controls, cash-out services and mis-use prevention must also be developed in parallel if the full potential is to be realised. In many humanitarian situations wallets are not the best solution and a holistic approach is required.

The rapid growth of cash-out

Most people who operate in the humanitarian sector will agree that there are times when cash truly is king. Psychologically and culturally, having cash to hand represents security, control and autonomy for many. Gaining access to tangible cash is especially important for those who have been displaced or have fled from conflict. In addition to what it represents, cash is widely accepted, giving beneficiaries the choice in how and where they spend money, live their lives and look after their families. In the case of mobile wallets, if there aren’t enough designated merchants or service providers that will accept this as payment - which is often the case if network infrastructure has been damaged - beneficiaries are likely to require and seek to cash out at the first opportunity. Many examples of this have recently been documented from the Ukraine and Sudan crises.

Challenges of a cash transfer programme using a mobile wallet

Within the humanitarian sector, mobile wallets therefore face a number of challenges:

  • Relies on higher end phone ownership
  • Connectivity and a reliable phone network
  • Limited choice - a good range of merchants need to adopt the system
  • Digital literacy - beneficiaries must be familiar with using mobile phones which can exclude certain populations
  • Cultural sensitivity - attitudes and trust around technology may influence acceptance

These significant issues mean that certain sections of a displaced population are immediately excluded and can be at a disadvantage, if alternatives and back-up technology can not be deployed or available quickly. One of the advantages of an iris biometric-based system is that people can still be identified and paid without the physical ownership of a phone, paperwork or other ID on them.

Gender inequality and phone ownership

The GSMA’s ‘State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money 2023’ highlights how mobile money services are used by millions of people globally. From paying bills and sending money abroad to enabling business transactions, managing savings and accessing social support, mobile money services are a solution for many.

However, when it comes to mobile phone ownership and digital literacy in developing countries, there remains a persistent disparity between men and women. Women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are 17% less likely than men to own a smartphone. Further, the GSMA’s analysis of the World Bank’s 2021 Global Findex Database indicates that women in LMICs are 28% less likely than men to have a mobile money account. In the GSMA’s ‘Mobile Gender Gap Report 2023’, it was reported that:

“More women in low- and middle-income countries are using mobile internet than ever before, but their rate of adoption has slowed for the second year in a row and a significant gender gap remains.

“Women are 19% less likely than men to use mobile internet and of the 900 million women who are still not using it, almost two-thirds live in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where mobile gender gaps are widest.

“Gender gaps in smartphone ownership and overall mobile ownership also remain relatively unchanged and stand at 7% and 17%, respectively. This slowdown in digital inclusion and the fact that mobile gender gaps are not reducing is concerning as we move to an increasingly connected world.”

Despite significant gains in mobile-led financial inclusion in recent years, women are still less likely to use mobile money services than men. This has been significantly addressed by a novel system deployed now for five years with UNWomen in Jordan to pay salaries only using the beneficiaries own iris - breaking the reliance upon a male or other family member granting permission or needing to be present to allow receipt of the woman's entitlement.

Addressing gender inequality

According to CARE International, 70% of the world’s poorest people are women. Since a disproportionate number of women and girls experience poverty, conflict and health emergencies it is essential that we proactively address gender inequality.

Iris recognition technology bypasses the need for mobile phone ownership, providing a vital path for women’s financial empowerment. It maintains a complete audit transactional trail for full transparency and accountability, with the iris providing a 100% accurate proof-of-life. Where there is a gender divide in mobile phone ownership, the capacity for identity verification and biometric liveness detection can help to level up.

As part of our pledge to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, by 2030, we seek to enhance the use of enabling technology - in particular information and communications technology - to promote the empowerment of women.

Through a regional agreement between UN Women and IrisGuard, over 1,000 Syrian refugees have been receiving their salaries in cash in refugee camp supermarkets, using iris recognition as their identity authentication. There is no need to provide the till operator with any other form of identification - the process is anonymous - and the transaction is recorded on the Blockchain for complete transparency.

UN Women is looking at extending their services utilising this system outside of refugee camps, further increasing financial inclusion for women and closing the gender gap.

The future of cash transfer programmes

Here at IrisGuard, we seek to provide the best solutions for our clients and their end users - their beneficiaries. For us, interoperability is key to success in this complex area of humanitarian aid. We regularly collaborate with merchants and other innovators and design our systems to be seamlessly integrated with a range of financial and retail modalities.

The award-winning IrisGuard EyePay® and EyeCloud® platforms have been integrated with Zain Cash and NassWallet mobile wallet services in Iraq. This integration, alone, enables a regular and verified disbursement of humanitarian cash support from the UNHCR to over 280,000 refugees who have fled to Iraq due to conflict.

Combining a mobile wallet with iris recognition strengthens both approaches, mitigates the limits and challenges of a cash transfer programme, and mobile wallet security is enhanced. This provides the best of both worlds.

An empowering solution for the distribution of humanitarian aid

Having been global leaders in our field since 2001, our passion lies in developing iris authentication technology to empower populations and enable financial inclusivity.

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