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Interview with Alessandro Bini, Director, Somali Cash Consortium

Written by Annie Duncan

September 27, 2019

We were excited to chat to Alessandro Bini, the Director of the Somali Cash Consortium, which provides humanitarian cash transfers to vulnerable populations in Somalia. Alessandro told us about the project to date, and how it will shape the future of humanitarian and government assistance in Somalia.

1) Can you outline the origins and objectives of the Somali Cash Consortium?

The Somali Cash Consortium has been operating officially since December 2017. It’s run by seven international NGOs. Concern Worldwide is the lead organisation. Others include Save the Children International, the Norwegian Refugee CouncilDanish Refugee CouncilACTED, COOPI. This year, we introduced another organisation, which is Impact. They are solely responsible for the Monitoring & Evaluation.

Essentially, we have two main roles to play. The first role is to provide humanitarian cash transfers to vulnerable populations in Somalia. Last year, we provided transfers for just over 300,000 individuals, which means about 52,000 households in Somalia. Cash Consortium covered the whole country and used mobile money. This year, we predict that we’ll reach around 285,000 individuals and 49,000 households. Once families are selected, they receive a cash transfer on a monthly basis for six months. The six months intend to cover the period when those families are most in need, when they’ve finished the harvest and are waiting for the next one.

Since last year, a group of donors that partners with Somalia has been working with the Federal government of Somalia to create a national safety net. The difference essentially is that it would be a longstanding safety net, providing cash to selected families for a long-term engagement.

Attached to that, there would be a shock responsive component that would kick in the case of an emergency. The idea would be to transition from this sort of humanitarian emergency cycle to a stable, long-term safety net where the most chronically vulnerable families receive this support. Then the emergency programme funding would come in, only when needed: if there is a particular drought year or a spike in conflict. The idea would be that the Somali Federal Government would eventually be in charge of the long-term, predictable safety net.

Out second role is to test innovation. We did four or five trials, trying to change a few things to see whether the impact is better and if we work better for families. We have been building systems using common data platforms to transfer the money more effectively, so that all of this can then be used by the future safety net.

2) Why was the Somali Cash Consortium created in 2017?

It was established because previously, different partners were disbursing cash in Somalia separately. Each organisation maybe was giving a different amount of money, targeting vulnerable families in different ways. Some were using physical cash and others were using mobile money. As a result, it was ineffective, inefficient, and confusing for people on the ground.

The basic idea of creating a cash consortium is to harmonise everything. Cash Consortium provides the same amount of cash based on an agreed cost of living in different areas of the country. In addition, we provide it for the same length of time and use the same means; mobile money. We use the same approach to define vulnerabilities for which families have the right to receive the cash. And we do the reporting, data and impact evaluation in the same way. This makes it more efficient, faster, and more comprehensible to people.

3) According to the World Bank, Somalia has one of the most active mobile money markets in the world. How would you explain the popularity of mobile money in the country?

For me, there are two main reasons. First of all, given Somalia’s history of conflict, it never developed a banking system. Even now, the formal banking system only really exists in the big urban centres. In a sense Somalia was ready to leapfrog from no formal banking system to mobile money. Somalia did not develop a comprehensive landline phone system either, and the little that was developed, was destroyed during the war. So, they went from no phones whatsoever to mobile phones. Somalis made these two leaps in parallel because they were starting from no systems in place. As the new state started to get a foothold and expand its control, it looked at developing systems and just made these leaps.

The second reason is that Somalia has a long history of entrepreneurship. Some of the work we do is on the cutting edge of technology. We work with some fin tech start-ups that were born and raised and based in Mogadishu. No one would have imagined that.

Last year, I was in Ethiopia, which is far more stable. However, because the country has a different history, which involves a bureaucratic and communist regime, it’s still based around a big state-owned monopoly. Ethiopia has one mobile company owned by the state. Consequently, the rate of innovation is obviously much slower.

4) How do cash transfers fuel humanitarian responses in Somalia?

The humanitarian needs are still huge. Although the Federal Government of Somalia controls all the urban centres and part of the rural areas, Al-Shabab remains present in other rural areas. There is still ongoing conflict in some rural areas between AMISOM troops, Somali government troops and Al-Shabab, which always forces people to run away. Mogadishu alone has around half a million displaced people. People get to Mogadishu and all they have is the monetary support that they receive.

The humanitarian needs are still huge. Although the Federal Government of Somalia controls all the urban centres and part of the rural areas, Al-Shabab remains present in other rural areas. There is still ongoing conflict in some rural areas between AMISOM troops, Somali government troops and Al-Shabab, which always forces people to run away. Mogadishu alone has around half a million displaced people. People get to Mogadishu and all they have is the monetary support that they receive.

In 2017, there was a massive drought on top of the displacement issues in Somalia. As a result, aid and humanitarian organisations saw first hand that providing aid in shelter, water and food could be done much faster by cash than in kind. You also spend a lot less on logistics. When you provide food, you need an international tender to buy grains on the world market. Then you have to ship it – either to Somalia or Kenya. Following this, you have to transport it to the actual physical location and then distribute it. This means storing tons of material and guarding them. That’s a massive logistical effort to transport the food to the country in need and distribute it.

Given Somalia’s entrepreneurial spirit, it normally has a very well-functioning market. This means that private traders are capable of getting most materials in-country. Of course you can’t provide cash for everything, but if you’ve done your study and assessment, and you know that the market there works, cash is just so much faster. What’s more, you remove the cost of the administration and logistics enormously, which means that more cash gets directed to people who need it most.

The other advantage of cash is that people get to choose how they spend their money.  Maybe families have a month where there is a big health issue and they need to spend more on health. Then the following month, they would spend more on food, but get to make the choice. This helps families to maintain a bit of dignity.

5) How are cash transfers are similar to the universal basic income in Somalia?

The future safety net that we are working to build in Somalia would be closer to the universal basic income than what currently exists. It still won’t be the universal basic income because we won’t reach every person. The situation in Somalia is just way too complex to establish a true universal income. However, we can get close, because essentially that safety net will be every year for a long period of time.

We need to ensure that there is enough funding to support 1 – 1.5 million people every month. This will not be every person who is really poor or in need, but it will be the bottom level in terms of food insecurity, vulnerability and poverty.

Right now, we are using humanitarian cash transfers to provide short-term relief to as many families as we can. With the nature of the humanitarian setting and humanitarian funding, we can’t guarantee that we’re going to be able to do it every year for the next 10 years. This is the main difference, which is why we want to transition to the safety net because it protects people’s rights. Over time, we want to transition the safety net to the Somalian government, because it’s a government’s prerogative to provide social assistance to its citizens.

At the moment, Somalia’s Federal Government has limited capacity. However, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs is very much key in the discussion. The government says what it needs and shapes the future safety net, but doesn’t have the capacity to implement it right now. As we progress, the ministry staff will be trained and will get additional staff so that it can builds its capacity over time. The Somali government will be involved increasingly and in three-five years they will have the capacity to run it. The exact time depends on the stability of the whole country, and whether there’s still conflict ongoing.

6) Could you elaborate on how you address questions of fairness when deciding on the cash recipients?

Essentially, there are two levels of targeting. The first is geographical, meaning we decide the region of Somalia to operate in. To do that, we use data developed by the food security cluster. They have developed a system, which essentially collects data on the harvest, prices in different regions, and the weather.

While the system is imperfect, it can show that these five regions would be particularly at risk over the next six months because there would be no rain. It also shows the supply of cereal or cattle, which is an indication of scarcity in the market. What’s more it can forecast the number of people who would be particularly food insecure in a certain area. We then drill down and select specific areas, villages or districts in the town.

To do that, we have developed a standardised process where our collaborating agency talks to the local government authorities and enquires about which villages are most at risk and for what reason. They then triangulate that information to select specific villages.

Once we’ve done that, we go to the second phase, which is targeting. Essentially, we decide which families should get support in each specific village. And there we involve the village committees. Normally, specific committees already exist in the village and generally includes the village elders. We try to ensure that the process represents minorities and features a reasonable gender balance. Furthermore, we try to make sure that people with disabilities are taken into account.

7) Could you please provide further detail on the process involved?

Field staff oversee and facilitate the process. How do you organise a meeting with a group of people representing a committee, and facilitate such work on selecting vulnerable families? We need to do this without offending context specific practices, whilst ensuring that it is as fair as possible. In addition, we don’t want a system where two people don’t make all the decisions, however important they may be in the community.

Based on that, the committee comes up with a list. These are the most vulnerable families in this area. That list is read out publicly. We want to give a chance to people who are not on the list to complain. They can say “Why am I not on the list? I’m very poor and I lost everything. I have eight children. I think I should be on the list.”

Furthermore, they can complain directly to the committee or organisation. Since we’re using mobile money, a lot of people have access to mobile phones. There is a free number that people can call to complain. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking publicly against the elders of the village, you can call this line. And then, the organisation staff will check whether actually this is true; should you be on the list? Once we’ve completed this process, we have our final list, which we use to start transferring.

These are the three keys that we want to address in this process. That’s the only way of being fair, but we have to do it quickly as well. We don’t have two months to go through this process. There are six organisations doing it in their different areas, and they do it in parallel.

Last time we did this targeting process for about 25,000 families in two weeks, but it’s a big effort. The teams work flat out on the process to finish it. There are areas that we could improve, but I think it’s fine and aims to be fair.

The image depicts Aisha Awale Diriiye Shire who stays alone in the camp. She sent $60 to her son and eight grandchildren who used to live in the camp, but returned home after a few months. 

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