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Taking cash to new frontiers – Why we worked in Uganda’s remote north (part 1/3)

In 2016-2017, we delivered cash transfers to one of the remotest and most operationally challenging locations we have ever worked in, reaching some of the poorest recipients we have ever met. In this series of posts, we look at why we did it, how we did it, and what we learned from the experience.

In 2016, Ban Ki Moon, then Secretary General of the UN, declared to world leaders that: “where markets and operational contexts permit, cash-based programming should be the preferred and default method of support.” Today, however, cash still makes up a tiny proportion of foreign aid. Of the many rationales aid organisations give for continuing to send in-kind assistance, not cash, one is particularly pervasive: that the places they operate in are too challenging, with locations too remote, markets too weak, and infrastructure too limited.

This year, we set out to challenge that. To do so, we sent cash to one of the remotest locations we could find, delivering over $500,000 to 550 families living at Uganda’s remote northerly tip, a stone’s throw from the South Sudan border. Our goal: to see if it could be done.

There were real operational challenges. Two of the seven villages we worked in could only be reached on foot, at the top of a mountain some four-to-seven hours from the nearest passable road. Population density was seven-times lower than the national average. Mobile reception ranged from poor to non-existent. There were no local banks and just a single mobile money agent covering 254 kilometers squared. It is no surprise that our field team here operated at 27% of the productivity of their colleagues elsewhere in Uganda.

But we were also able to reach uniquely poor communities. Recipients here had been largely cut-off from the formal economy. 45% were actively engaged in a barter economy, more than half of those bartering more than using cash. Few NGOs had ever reached these communities before. Just 9% of recipients had ever met one, despite living in one of Uganda’s poorest regions, and the region most affected by Uganda’s decades-long war with the Lord’s Resistance Army.

So, could it be done? Stay tuned and over the next two posts, we’ll look at what happened when we tried.

Read Part 2 of taking cash to new frontiers.

Josh Williams is GiveDirectly’s Field Director in Uganda, and led our remote payments project.