Reflections on the World Humanitarian Summit

26 May 2016

After two days in Istanbul listening to government undertakings and speaking with many humanitarian actors, alongside some 9,000 other participants - I have been reflecting on the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS).

The summit was conceived by Ban Ki-moon, and is the first time such an event has happened. As a relative outsider, a member of the private sector, it was fascinating. There were some very positive commitments made in terms of greater funding by many country donors, and calls for greater focus and new ways of addressing growing challenges. There was also a repeating call for the private sector to be a greater participant. The idea that every person has a responsibility to humanity, and to assist even in a small way in closing the enormous gaps that exist for so many living in difficult and dangerous situations, is of course, a compelling one.

The role of businesses, not as donors, but as active participants in programmes, is a theme that needs exploring. The WHS made a loud call for programming to shift substantially towards cash and payments as the mechanism of humanitarian intervention. The arguments are very sound for this, with efficiency, transparency, and human dignity (for the beneficiary to receive money rather than blankets and food) amongst the many. There seems to be agreement across the humanitarian actors that this makes sense. I heard a number of statements of intent that such cash programming would increase to 25% or even 50% of total activity for some of the intervention actors, and even that it should be the default position.

Getting there is still a big challenge. Financial systems (technologies) are needed to create easy-to-manage digital access to a money-holding account, even if ultimately the beneficiary converts this to physical cash. The humanitarian actors are showing great interest in the technologies that facilitate this, but our experience is that they are taking an incremental approach from their existing non-financial programme experience. They are trying to procure payments services and are getting into a bit of a muddle with many, many trials going on at small scale. These look highly repetitive, and do not seem to be achieving the required breakthrough. It seems that the humanitarians are thinking that making payments to beneficiaries is completely unique, and the technology businesses - with all their experience - are being regarded as suppliers, not partners.

I believe there needs to be a different approach. After all, there are relatively few true payments providers who really understand in-country financial regulation and who are actually regulated. These payments providers have spent very significant amounts of money building efficient payment platforms that each of us personally use, daily, whether open systems (e.g., on the Visa/MasterCard networks) or in limited use systems (e.g., transit smartcards, or school and university campus payments, such as sQuid).

With all our collective experience, surely the technology providers are best able to run their payments services even in a humanitarian context? I think, as partners with NGOs, progress would be much faster in responding to the call for shifting to cash and payments.

On the second day of the summit, I was asked to give a personal view at the Business Breakfast: From Commitments to Action forum on how the private sector might respond to the challenges laid out at the WHS. Speaking in the context of our experience in payments in particular - and with sQuid being a member of a Strategic Partnership between private sector players and UK DFID in their Girls’ Education Challenge - I suggested that over the coming years, the private sector should feel comfortable offering paid-for services at appropriate discount if we offer good value for money for donors, and that over the next five years we might see private companies particularly those with technology and service capability, such as in payments systems, actually leading programmes directly with donors and supported by NGOs. Now that really would be ‘Partnership’.

Adam Smith, Chief Executive, sQuid

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Photo credit: World Humanitarian Summit -

Video credit: UN OCHA -