Ideas & Updates

Debit cards provide flexibility to displaced families in Mali

© Photo by Helen Blakesley/CRS

Eighteen-year-old Djélika Haïdara was pregnant when she fled her home in northern Mali to escape the violent aftermath of a military coup. She and her extended family were among more than 227,000 people displaced within Mali. Djélika and her baby now live in Bamako, the nation’s capital, in a rented apartment with 20 other family members.

Debit cards provide flexibility to displaced families in Mali

CRS is providing Djélika with a debit card that allows her to withdraw funds as she needs them. Photo by Helen Blakesley/CRS

“Here things are really hard, you can’t go anywhere without spending money. Rents are high, too,” she explained.

The family found relief, though. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) helped them, and more than 4,000 others in Bamako, by giving them debit cards that provided monthly distributions to pay for food, rent and medical expenses.

Beginning in July 2012, CRS first used direct cash distributions but later moved to a pre-paid debit card system, which made things easier for participants as well as for CRS. The National Bank of Agricultural Development (BNDA) was chosen to provide the service, as it has the largest network of branches in Bamako.

Negotiating the contract with the bank was a months-long process, largely due to the fact that it was new territory for both CRS and BNDA. Discussions went beyond issues of technology and CRS quickly learned the importance of involving finance staff from the earliest stages. An additional, critical concern was protecting participants’ privacy. To preserve confidentiality, CRS provided the bank with participant numbers, rather than names.

The bank produced the debit cards and PIN numbers, and supplied staff to distribute the cards and PINs to beneficiaries. For some participants, this was their first experience with the formal banking system. Therefore, the bank assigned staff to ensure the participants understood how to use the cards and ATMs. This was particularly helpful for illiterate participants who needed additional assistance.

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Djélika Haïdara fled her home in Timbuktu, Mali, while still pregnant with 5-month-old Ousmane, center. They now live in the capital, Bamako, where CRS is helping them with their rent. Photo by Helen Blakesley/CRS

The bank cards were loaded with the equivalent of $16 per person, per month. The amount was calculated based on the March 2012 market price of a simple basket of staple foods meeting caloric and nutritional needs. Sixteen dollars doesn’t sound like much, but in Bamako it helped cover basic needs such as food, health costs, school fees or rent. Monitoring and evaluation reports also showed a notable reduction in negative coping strategies such as debt, begging, and sales of assets.

Participants especially appreciated the flexibility provided by debit cards, which allowed them to decide when and where to withdraw cash. “It’s better with the debit card, than giving the money directly” explained Djélika. “The good thing is that you don’t need to wait in line, you can go to the ATM when you want and take out how much you want.”

Dieudonné Somboro, CRS Project Manager for Assistance for IDPs in Bamako, agreed that the project provided a positive and innovative approach. “It’s so much easier. Before, we had to call people on the phone to tell them about the distribution and then arrange the events with the mayors of the communes – it took days of work,” he explained. “There was also the risk of theft with all that money sitting around.

“But most importantly, this system provides freedom of choice for displaced people – and that in itself maintains their dignity.”

Learn more about CRS’ cash transfer program in Mali.