Sara Murray

Cheaper, Faster, Better?: Mercy Corps compares E-transfers and cash in the DRC

International humanitarian agencies are increasingly using local markets in emergency responses, by offering cash and vouchers as humanitarian assistance to support local livelihoods and offer families the choice to prioritize household needs. While physical cash is familiar to users around the world, distributing cash directly carries security risks for agencies and recipients as well as accounting and logistical challenges that can limit the amount of people who can be reached through this type of program. Electronic means of distributing cash or vouchers have the potential to reduce these risks and challenges and even offer the option of saving money in a mobile account.

But how well do e-transfers work in areas where the electronic infrastructure is limited? How costly are these options compared to physical cash and what benefits do they offer to beneficiaries? With funding from the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, Mercy Corps studied these questions as part of a program in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Over nine months, the study examined transfers using either mobile money, physical cash or electronic vouchers (e-vouchers) to 3,355 people.

The final report “Cheaper, Faster, Better?” provides some surprising results. When measured by cost per transfer, e-vouchers proved the most expensive way to deliver aid. E-vouchers, however, allowed Mercy Corps to reach some locations where security concerns prevented cash distribution. E-vouchers were also faster to set up and far more reliable and intuitive for beneficiaries to use than mobile money. Physical cash was the least expensive on a cost per transfer basis, because both e-vouchers and mobile money have associated service fees and other costs, including contracting set-up costs, staff and training time, establishing and managing a voucher network and hardware costs (e-vouchers), and monitoring disbursements (mobile money).

In terms of expediency, mobile money in this instance proved tobe the slowest method to get cash into people’s hands, taking three times longer to set up than either e-vouchers or physical cash distribution. In the DRC, the unreliability of the service provider and the dearth of cash-out locations in rural areas posed additional challenges.

Despite the challenges experienced in the DRC, Mercy Corps sees promise in continuing to explore the use of both e-vouchers and mobile money in emergency settings, although this study helps to identify some of the cost and time trade-offs that are associated with these forms of transfers in environments with limited infrastructure.

Also with the support of MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, Mercy Corps has created a comprehensive guide to help field teams and humanitarian agencies plan for and execute electronic cash transfer programs. The guide includes resources to help teams select an e-transfer delivery mechanism and compare estimated costs. Feedback on the study and guide are welcome; please contact Sara Murray ( or Lily Frey (

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on the Cash Learning Partnership blog. It is cross-posted with permission.

Sara Murray is Mercy Corps’ Electronic Cash Transfer Program Manager.

Education, Impact Assessment
digital payments, research