As the crisis in Sudan appears to be sliding inexorably towards civil war, the UN and its non-governmental partners are planning for a protracted humanitarian catastrophe. As is usual at the beginning of such disasters, the situation is fluid and uncertain. Aid stockpiles have been looted while hundreds of thousands have sought sanctuary in neighbouring countries, most of which are already facing their humanitarian crises. Hundreds of thousands more are displaced as they flee local violence. Widespread and potentially long-lasting food insecurity looms.
“Families across Sudan are running out of everything, including water, food, fuel and cashMoney in physical form such as banknotes and coins. More.”
Jan Egeland, Norwegian Refugee Council, 3 May 2023
The UN-facilitated Cash Working Group for Sudan, temporarily based in Nairobi, Kenya, is considering its options: While there will be a short-term requirement for food aid, most of the response will likely involve cash transfers. But in what form? This is what we know at the moment:
“Traders will only accept cash. We can’t eat digital money!” – Internally Displaced Person, Port Sudan, 2 May 2023.
Evidence of cash transfers for social protection from Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere in the region over the past decade has taught us the following:
The aid community and its private sector counterparts must be ready for a rapid and sustainable escalation in cash assistanceThe term cash assistance refers to direct cash transfers to individuals, families and communities in need of humanitarian support in lieu of in-kind commodities or direct service delivery. The term can be used interchangeably with ‘cash-based interventions’ (CBI), ‘cash transfer programming’ (CTP), ‘cash and voucher assistance’ (CVA), and ‘cash-based programming (CBP)’. It does not include fund transfers from donors, payment of incentives to the staff of local authorities, paymen... More. Fintechs like Aidonics and Zain are already advertising the benefits of end-to-end electronic transfers. There will be a time to consider the costs and benefits of all options, but that time is not now. Neither consumers nor merchants are willing to trust electronic paymentA transfer of funds which discharges an obligation on the part of a payer vis-à-vis a payee. More systems in times of such political uncertainty.
As in the Syria crisis, international aid organisations planning for what happens next in Sudan should follow the example of Syria’s neighbouring countries by preparing to scale up cash distributions using pre-paid debit cards and ATMs. This will likely involve establishing an entirely new ‘ATM-based retail banking’ system across Sudan. Waiver of cross-border fees, reductions in interchange, interoperability and the daily setting of exchangeThe Eurosystem comprises the European Central Bank and the national central banks of those countries that have adopted the euro. More rates will also have to be high on the agenda.
In light of all this, the Cash Working Group for Sudan – like Cash Working Groups the world over – would benefit from independent advice from a former Central Banker who understands retail payments, cash managementManagement and control of cash in circulation. More for societies in crisis, and the Africa/Middle East payments environment. Volunteers should contact the author directly in the first instance.