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Humanitarians working on cash transfer and remittance researchers need to work together

Kevin Savage's picture
I had the pleasure of attending a workshop organized by KNOMAD at which a cross-disciplinary group of researchers (economics, anthropology, law, health, finance) came together to consider how to strengthen the evidence base of understanding remittances to and from refugees and IDPs.

A decade ago, remittances were becoming a new development mantra and since then a large amount of effort has been put into reducing the barriers and costs of remittances in order to help enhance a critically important source of income for some of the poorest people in the world. This is now an objective (10.c) of the SDGs.

Recognizing the importance of remittances, in 2005 a group of humanitarian researchers investigated the impact of crises on remittances and considered the
implications for humanitarians. At that time, humanitarians were not very familiar with the importance of remittances or the nature of multi-locational, trans-national livelihood strategies in many of the places they were operating. The background literature review prepared for the meeting found that in the 10 years since very limited further research and evidence have been documented on remittances in crises. This is surprising given that over this period, national and international crises have caused the greatest number of displaced people since the second world war, putting migration on the front stage of much of the worlds' concern and discussion, while huge changes in information and communication technology affecting remittances and migration in crises have occurred.

At the workshop, we discussed and shared methods for addressing and overcoming the significant challenges to researching remittances, much of which are caused by the sometimes precarious position that both remitters and receivers may be in within the communities or states they are living. It can be extremely difficult to assess and understand the livelihoods and vulnerabilities of displaced people who are not legally resident or not legally allowed to work, who may be hiding from the view of authorities, and who may be highly mobile. People are understandably very cautious and reluctant to share information with researchers, particularly with respect to income and remittances. So developing a sampling frame, finding people, gaining their trust, protecting and safeguarding their personal information being collected, are extremely challenging and require caution and care around how the information and results may be used.

While the focus of the workshop was on remittances research, what occurred to me during our discussion was that many of these issues and indeed the purpose of such research have a great deal in common with several other fields of study including current efforts in the international humanitarian community to improve our effectiveness. Many of the places with greatest humanitarian needs and risks rely on significant remittance flows. So such research is more than academic and there is great potential for useful collaboration between humanitarians and remittance researchers. Several of the major themes of the World Humanitarian Summit and efforts to improve humanitarian action such as urban disasters, protracted crises, linkages with development and social protection systems, and cash transfer programming, involve challenges and research needs that overlap with many of those we discussed today in respect of refugee/IDP remittance research.

Urban crises are a good example. As the world urbanizes so to do crises and this is challenging the humanitarian community whether responding to a natural disaster or large scale displacement from Syria. Urban crises not only require significant changes to the way we respond but also to how we gather data and the tools we use to assess needs, analyse and understand the context and the vulnerabilities and lives of those affected. Identifying who are the most vulnerable, measuring and analysing the livelihoods (including remittances) of displaced or refugee populations in urban settings is extremely difficult but necessary in order to design effective and appropriate assistance.

One of the few recent studies of remittances in crises points this out quite explicitly as it explains it's purpose was to inform cash transfer programming.
If remittances were a development mantra of the last decade, cash transfers are certainly the humanitarian mantra of this one. The UN Secretary General's report for the World Humanitarian Summit explicitly calls for cash transfers to be the default, first choice, form of assistance, which will require a massive set of changes for humanitarians. Humanitarians are institutionalizing their ability to deliver cash and they are asking the same questions remittance researchers are investigating - how is money being transferred, what are the costs, what are the risks and barriers to accessing transfer systems, what are the regulations governing them, who is able to use them, how do we actually answer these questions?

As we take forward the agenda for researching remittances in crises we should seek to engage with the humanitarians and partners, including global money transfer companies, major donors, and the World Bank teams, who are collaborating on cash transfers and on urban crises. This will not only help by exchanging knowledge on how to get the research done but will also help ensure that we design and implement research that is impactful with findings that are applied to helping those in crises.


 

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