Case study: cash-based programming (CBP) in the food assistance sector


This case study explores innovation in the food supply and distribution sector of humanitarian innovation and uses a framework for analysis based on several components, including: Resources (the finance, time, knowledge, technologies, etc., available and how deployed); <i> Roles</i> (who plays what roles in innovation processes); Relationships (relationships and networks in the innovation ecosystem, and how they shape innovation efforts); Rules (formal and informal, and how they shape roles, relationships, resource allocations, and processes); Routines (the specific ways in which innovation processes work in the sector - and how well); and Results (how they are determined, by whom, and how this impacts on the success or otherwise of innovations). These components are then integrated into a systems map to better understand the different elements and interactions of the innovation ecosystem.

The dominant design in food aid emerged in the early 1960s, transferring US surpluses to countries in need; the following fifty years saw sustained incremental innovation to improve the process, product and targeting. In parallel an alternative approach emerged based on variations on a cash model: providing end-users with resources to meet their needs through local market mechanisms. For a long time this approach was seen to lack a strong evidence base and had relatively low acceptance, but the past decade has seen major expansion, with growing experience of cash-based approaches deployed at scale. There has also been extensive learning about the very different skills, capabilities and infrastructures needed. Cash programming is now accepted as a powerful tool with procedures in place to enable a growing proportion of funding to be channelled in this way.

Innovation theory provides insights into the workings of the humanitarian innovation ecosystem: a key characteristic is that early stages involve experimentation and learning at the fringe, driven by entrepreneurs, i.e. a process of fast failure and learning, gradually refining key elements in the context of application. This was observed for cash programming: small-scale entrepreneurial activity refining a new model via a process of controlled experimentation, all at a time of rapid technological change (e.g. mobile payments and better online security) that facilitated the building of a carrier infrastructure.

The growing evidence overcame initial objections – could end-users be trusted, how to avoid corruption, maintain security, etc. Cash programming requires a new technological infrastructure with different skills, moving away from a supply and distribution model to one resembling more closely a financial system. It also moves from a centralized model towards a decentralized one, with corresponding shifts in power and influence. Arguably cash programming represents a paradigm shift in the underlying business and mental models; this is reflected in the change of terminology from food aid to food assistance.

Questions remain: e.g. the role technology might play in extending the range and application of cash programming. It is also clear that there are limits to the use of cash; it is not suitable under all conditions, and agencies are developing guidelines to help make appropriate choices about assistance routes.

Overall the story highlights the existence of an innovation ecosystem within the humanitarian sector. There are key players and institutions and connectivity across a network which supports sustaining innovation – doing what we do but better. But there are also points where experimentation takes place and new, radical options emerge; these tend to be at the fringes of the mainstream and not well integrated, often driven by individual entrepreneurs acting in maverick mode. Finding ways to couple these two systems – the mainstream “do better” machine with its advantages of scale, and the entrepreneurial fringe with its capacity for radical new thinking – is a significant challenge and opportunity for enhancing the ecosystem for the future.


Bessant, J. Case study: cash-based programming (CBP) in the food assistance sector. CENTRIM, University of Brighton, Brighton, UK (2015) 66 pp.

Case study: cash-based programming (CBP) in the food assistance sector

Published 1 January 2015