Utilizing Digital Cash Transfers During COVID -19 to Reach Vulnerable Groups in Liberia

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By: Melvin B. Moore

Overview of Digital Cash Transfers

As COVID-19 continues to change the global landscape fundamentally, it has the potential to trigger devastating social, economic and political crises that will leave deep scars. Cases are rising daily in Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

As the coronavirus spreads, businesses and governments, struggling under the weight of the pandemic, are looking to limit cash exchanges, which the World Health Organization has warned could transmit the virus.

The use of technology is now more beneficial than ever in the light of the need for social distancing to stem the pandemic and keep individuals healthy.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries are using cash transfers — a tool that can be fast and support local economies. The humanitarian sector has used this tactic for years to ensure that communities living through crises do not slip into deep poverty. Cash transfers are the most widely used social assistance intervention by governments, representing 65 per cent of the social assistance schemes.

A total of 71 countries have cash transfer programs in place, with 54 of the new initiatives explicitly introduced as a response to COVID-19.

According to the Global Mobile Money Database (GSMA), the mobile money industry has enabled digital cash assistance to be delivered to over 2.7 million unique mobile money accounts used by people affected by the crisis. In a survey “2019 Global Adoption Survey” conducted by GSMA, 60 per cent of mobile money providers reported partnering with a humanitarian organization to deliver mobile money.

The success of the money transfer and mobile payment makes it possible for millions of people to perform instant, secure and reliable financial transactions using their mobile phone. Cash payments can be scaled up quite broadly, rapidly, and efficiently, including through digital payments.

But this depends on having some underlying administrative and digital infrastructure—proper identification, clean beneficiary rolls, and efficient payments mechanisms.

Governments implementing cash transfers

On March 24, India put its population of 1.3 billion people under lockdown. On April 3, the Government launched a cash transfer program, which included putting 500 rupees, or $6.50, in the accounts of 204 million women. As part of Bangladesh’s coronavirus relief efforts, the Government is providing $30 a month to about 5 million impoverished families using one of the country’s four mobile financial services.

In Kenya, the National Treasury appropriated $100M for supporting the elderly, orphans and other vulnerable members with cash transfers. In East African countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, mobile money is already the currency of choice for everything from daily shopping to paying bills, mainly driven by the success of Safaricom’s service M-Pesa.

Other countries have also launched programs. In Burkina Faso, for example, a new $10 million cash transfer program for fruits and vegetable sellers was announced. On March 31, the Government of Zimbabwe announced that USD 550,000 per month would be set aside for the next three months for an emergency cash transfer program to reach 1 million vulnerable households.

Also, the Togolese Government is introducing Novissi, a coronavirus cash transfer program, for a limited duration for those affected by the COVID-19 and who can prove their identity with a valid voting card will receive a state grant worth at least 30 per cent of the minimum wage. The aim is to help beneficiaries pay for basic daily necessities such as food, sanitation and communication.

Synopsis of Mobile money growth in Liberia

Mobile money was officially launched in Liberia in 2011 as part of the Central Bank’s broader agenda of financial inclusion.

The CBL licensed two Mobile Money Providers, Lonestar cell MTN Mobile Inc. licensed in 2015 and Cellcom Technologies Ltd (Orange Liberia), licensed in 2016. In February 2016: the total subscriber base was 803,636, which is 18% of the population and out of this number, about 2,423 were considered as active participants [agents] in the mobile money ecosystem.

Since the breakthrough of the first mobile money platform in Liberia about a decade ago by one of the country’s leading mobile telecommunications operators, Lonestar Cell MTN, new technologies and innovative business models such as agent banking have led to the creation of a mass-market for affordable, accessible, and sustainable financial services for low-income people, small-scale entrepreneurs, and people in rural areas.

Why Relief through Mobile Money Services?

Mobile money has been hailed as a way for people excluded from the formal financial system – including women, youth and the rural poor – to access services such as savings, loans and start businesses and receive payments.

There are already existing banking platforms that the Government uses to disburse funds to vulnerable groups. Additionally, there is also the world-famous mobile money platform that can practically reach 70 per cent of Liberians, wherever they are across the country.

The usage of mobile money plays a pivotal role in both humanitarian organizations and recipients; mobile payment offers a range of benefits. While organizations see operational advantages, such as greater transparency, accountability, speed and cost-effectiveness, affected populations experience greater dignity, flexibility, security and opportunities for financial inclusion.

By putting cash into vulnerable group’s pockets, social protection can help sustain local economic activities, especially in essential sectors like food.

Experiences during previous pandemics and economic crises have shown that a range of transfer programs and modalities can be useful in protecting vulnerable households. For instance, in 2015, Save the Children used mobile money for emergency assistance to 5,000 households affected by Ebola in Liberia.

Delivering cash transfers to vulnerable groups in Liberia through digital cash transfer is generally faster, cheaper and more secure than food distribution. Moreover, in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, it’s safer, avoiding any risk of transmitting the virus.

Conclusion

To conclude, using digital cash transfers (mobile money services) to vulnerable groups can be a lifeline. The role of mobile in providing a lifeline for digital, social and financial inclusion during this pandemic is now more critical than ever – particularly in the context of reaching the most vulnerable populations and providing a reliable audit trail.

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About the Author:

Melvin B Moore is a Liberian and currently a Graduate Research Assistant at Mount Kenya University, Nairobi, Kenya. He’s the CEO/Founder of Liberian Data Research Group. It is a Non-profit Organization composed of young, energetic professionals who saw the need to provide quality research; hence, using data, evidence and insight to engage Liberian Government. He has written several articles mostly on Liberia. Here are some of his articles:

  1. As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates, how equipped is Liberia’s healthcare system?
  2. Cervical cancer – Emerging cancer among women in Liberia
  3. The Proliferation of the Prevalence and Potential Health Effects of Tobacco Smoking with Waterpipe(Shisha)

You can reach him on the following numbers: +254789355173, +254799869764 or via email: mooremelvinb@gmail.com