A New Blueprint for the Future of Financial Assistance
Contrary to what Netflix might make us believe, the practice of humanitarian futures and foresight feels more like removing blinkers than looking into a crystal ball. While humanitarians have traditionally used forecasting to improve preparedness, it is the use of futures and foresight that will enable us to build a shared vision and plan collaboratively.
CaLP and its network, through its Future of Financial Assistance work, is in the process of painting a picture of possible futures to examine how we can move together towards a more accountable, effective and inclusive ecosystem. If looking into the future of humanitarian aid is important, building the future of cash and markets programming is vital if we want to achieve long-lasting transformation for the vulnerable people we aim to serve. We just need to make sure we build on the right foundations.
The way in which we use futures and foresight to design a blueprint to build the future of financial assistance matters. When done well, the practice of futures and foresight creates a frame from which we interrogate our current state, to challenge our assumptions and institutions to define the changes in policies, practices and culture needed to build the future. Strategic foresight should enable us to create plural and inclusive futures by challenging current hegemonies and biases. When done well, futures and foresight serve as a trampoline to re-imagine the foundations upon which we build tomorrow.
When done badly, futures and foresight is seen as an extra layer to traditional strategic processes with a predictable cast of contributors and a pre-cooked final product. It uses tools with creative names and lots of colourful post-its but ends up reinforcing singular linear futures that assume the current state is immovable and should be the only blueprint we should aspire to have. When done badly, foresight comes up with narratives that justify the status quo, make our current institutions feel inevitable, legitimise certain kinds of solutions, exclude key stakeholders and make our world feel preordained.
The upcoming futures and foresight workshop hosted by CaLP in Amman should enable its network to re-imagine the blueprint we use to build the future of financial assistance. It should continue to build an effective process that is representative of all peoples and futures, that systematically interrogates all drivers of change in the ecosystem and identifies and addresses bias.
In order to effectively respond to this significant challenge, I propose considering three critical issues:
1. Whose future are we building?
Any futures we come up with have to allow all people in the ecosystem to see themselves in it. Being inclusive in the process is important, but this goes beyond it. If we only craft agency-centric scenarios we will potentially interest CEOs, but we will be missing a key opportunity. The reality is that aid recipients are increasingly in control of their own recovery. One of the key arguments to move from in kind to cash assistance was to amplify people’s agency and that comes, in part, with relinquishing control. This might come as a shock for some because for an industry created specifically to serve vulnerable people, we have been historically consistent in ignoring what they actually want and need. Ultimately, if we are truly committed to the supreme principle of humanity, how can we build a future of financial assistance where vulnerable people can’t see themselves and their priorities in it?
This is a golden opportunity to turn that legacy around by changing the point of view from which we design the blueprint for the future. We should consider moving from designing future scenarios that focus on how humanitarian agencies can remain relevant, to asking what will be needed in the future and how, and by whom, this can be delivered? What would a demand-driven future of financial assistance look like? Can local NGOs see themselves in the visions of the future CaLP is helping to build? What would the future look like if we served beneficiaries with the same attention and urgency we serve the donors that fund us?
2. Who is the architect?
Traditional humanitarian actors need to realise that they aren’t the principal architects of change in the aid system. Change is happening all around us, to us and in spite of us.
Futures and foresight tools should allow us to zoom out from the short-term nature of our project logframes into the long term of the issues we are trying to tackle to define what is our added value. It should allow us to re-author some of the deeper narratives that animate our sector, from who gets to be ‘humanitarian’ to how we define ‘humanitarian needs’. Assuming traditional humanitarians have all the tools, purpose, resources and expertise to address systemic failure and poverty is a mistake – it ignores the need for complementarity to address longer term causes and needs.
What if we take this opportunity to truly open up the design of our future blueprint to other stakeholders who are already building solutions that might not fit neatly in our sectoral baskets of needs? Would we come up with different futures if fintech startups or insurance companies were part of the process? How would the future of financial assistance be transformed if we aimed to include access to energy and technology as basic needs?
Before everyone hits me up on Twitter, I’m not suggesting we sign up to Silicon Valley’s unquestioned faith in technology and capitalism’s progress dogma. Using technology as a substitute for trust creates chaos. While putting a ‘humanitarian fig leaf’ on potentially invasive technology is dangerous, it is our duty to be part of conversations to truly shape the change happening so vulnerable people are protected. Knowing how to be an effective negotiator to influence processes mined with non disclosure agreements should be part of every agency’s tool kit. Recognising and honoring the diversity in the humanitarian sector when representing each other’s views in these processes is also fundamental.
3. The future of what?
Even if for some of us in the world of cash the last fifteen years have felt like pushing a heavy boulder up a hill, we have to recognize that we have gone from ‘did you really say we should give cash?!’ to ‘cash as a default’ in a very short period of time. Cash went mainstream so quickly it sometimes feels like it peaked before we figured out how to do it properly. I worry that its time in the spotlight hinders our ability to continue to innovate and learn from it. At a time where we already struggle managing negative media exposure, how can we continue to figure out how money can be used as a tool to alleviate suffering in difficult places?
The blueprint for the future of financial assistance needs to recognize that cash as a tool still needs to evolve to be fit to solve problems of the future. Cash currently solves some problems of the past: scale, audit transparency, cost efficiency. But it still struggles to solve problems of the future: limited access and high levels of risk, and anti-terror compliance vs humanitarian principles, among others. These challenges will be magnified when paired with the sector’s current inability to fix foundational issues for cash programming:
- We struggle to transparently explain how much money we give to people when there is a difference between how much money we should give based on needs vs how much we actually give based on politics and budgetary constraints.
- There is a serious disconnect between the time-consuming means we use to find those who need aid the most and communities’ own understanding of who gets left behind, suggesting we still haven’t got the question of proximity right.
- Finding safe and non-invasive means of identification that effectively balance protection with donor accountability requirements remains a problem.
These issues, and a humble recognition of our own need to responsibly learn by doing, need to all be part of the blueprint upon which we build the future of financial assistance.
To all attending the workshop in Amman I encourage you to break free from the tyranny of the past and contemplate a genuinely new blueprint rather than simply updating old ones. We don’t have to be locked into paths determined by choices made in previous times, when the world was a much different place. These legacies that stubbornly persist, constrain future possibilities and blinker us from alternative ways of thinking. The practice of futures and foresight can remove those blinkers which is why the work that CaLP is doing through this project is so relevant.
If you are not attending the meeting in Amman but are interested in participating in this process, have feedback, or expertise to offer please let CaLP know here.
To learn more and input into the analysis, CaLP is organizing a webinar on 31 July. Details are here.
Main image: Kieran Doherty, Oxfam