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MasterCard partnership delivers aid quickly and securely through mobile phones

DR Congo, Nepal, Philippines, April 2, 2014

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Thirty-five years of responding to natural disasters and crises has taught us a lot. We know that acting quickly saves lives. We also know that it is important to transition as quickly as possible from immediate relief to recovery activities to help communities rebound quickly and eventually thrive.

Local markets are key to driving this successful transition. When we first arrive at an emergency zone, we look for opportunities to support existing markets and help them build back better. Getting cash into the hands of those impacted as quickly as possible is often critical to getting people needed aid while simultaneously kick starting local economies and building resilient communities.

MasterCard believes in the power of electronic payments technology and innovation to transform people’s lives for the better and open doors of economic opportunity. Through the advancement of research and strategic philanthropic investments, the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth supports and enables those historically excluded from financial services and serves as a catalyst for change.

With a common vision and a desire to create real and lasting impact for vulnerable communities, especially those impacted by emergencies, Mercy Corps and MasterCard embarked upon a journey to develop and test technology solutions to deliver aid more efficiently, effectively and securely in times of emergency.

Aid organizations, including Mercy Corps, have used cash transfers and paper vouchers for many years in emergencies to get money into the hands of survivors so that they can purchase essential food and household supplies, while boosting the local economy.

But electronic cash transfers, believed to be more cost-effective, efficient, transparent and safer have been used less frequently in times of disaster. This is due to lack of prepositioning, technical expertise and relationships, as well as infrastructure challenges.

MasterCard and Mercy Corps saw an opportunity to work together to develop, test and evaluate electronic cash transfer methodologies and capture and share learning across the industry. In 2013, Mercy Corps, with MasterCard support, piloted two mobile voucher solutions, as part of a program called ELEVATE (Electronic Voucher Assistance) to deliver aid more quickly and securely in times of emergency.

We started in a non-emergency setting in Nepal, a country where poverty and natural disasters are prevalent. We tested transferring funds through both smartphone data applications and SMS messaging on mobile phones with 200 families in Kathmandu’s urban slum areas. These families rely on meager incomes and have little or no safety net. The pilot enabled us to establish and document a process for selecting and implementing electronic cash transfer solutions.

It also elevated important questions around engaging vendors, creating appropriate training materials, and ensuring solutions are inclusive and accessible to all groups including women and girls, minorities, and the elderly.

We are now testing solutions in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where thousands of families have been uprooted by conflict and violence. In the coming months we aim to work with 8,000 families to test and compare e-vouchers, mobile money and cash to paper vouchers, this time in a true emergency setting.

While we are still actively learning and documenting the opportunities and challenges around electronic transfers, we have already begun to put some of our learning into action in both emergency and non-emergency cash transfer programming.

One of the best examples is our response to Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines on November 8, 2013. In the very early days, Mercy Corps focused on meeting the immediate needs of people in remote areas by distributing hygiene and shelter kits and clean water. We quickly transitioned to longer-term economic recovery — getting people back to work, families back in their homes and businesses back up and running.

We are partnering with BanKO, a microfinance bank, to provide cash transfers to typhoon survivors via mobile phones. Our work in the Philippines has benefitted immensely from ELEVATE. We were able to draw upon our established and tested operating procedures, monitoring and evaluation systems and tools and training materials, enabling us to act more quickly and effectively to get resources into the hands of those who needed it the most.

We look forward to our ongoing work on ELEVATE, in partnership with MasterCard. This year, we will finalize and disseminate a Tool Kit for cash in emergencies which can be used across Mercy Corps’ 43 countries and with other NGOs and key stakeholders.