Sierra Leone was one of the hardest-hit countries during the Ebola outbreak, with more than 14,000 reported cases of the 28,000 total cases in West Africa.
Ebola response workers were spread across Sierra Leone’s 14 districts, including many health units in rural areas. The speed with which Ebola spread meant the government needed a more efficient, reliable and secure tool than cash to manage payments to response workers in a country where there were fewer than 50 ATMs when the outbreak struck.
But because cash is expensive, slow, bulky and vulnerable to theft, graft and payment errors there were cases of late or incorrect payments to response workers often leading to strikes during the Ebola crisis.
Digital payments therefore had to be adopted particularly given Sierra Leone already had mobile network coverage across nearly 95 percent of the country, and more than 90 percent of response workers with access to a mobile phone, later proving to be an invaluable tool in Sierra Leone’s response to the Ebola crisis.
According to a new study from the United Nations-based Better Than Cash Alliance, digital payments to Ebola response workers saved lives and $10 million by helping cut payment times, avoid large-scale strikes and ensure a stable workforce to defeat Ebola.
The report comes just ahead of the first ever United Nations World Humanitarian summit set to begin next week.
The study shows digital payments delivered compelling results in Sierra Leone, including cost savings of US $10.7 million for the government, taxpayers, development partners and response workers- an equivalent of funding Sierra Leone’s Free Health Care Program catering for 1.4 million children and 250,000 pregnant women annually.
The report adds that digital payments also reduced payment times from over one month on average for cash to one week and prevented the loss of around 800 working days per month from the Ebola response workforce, helping save lives during this critical time. Digital payments also saved response workers around $80,000 per month in travel costs by avoiding lengthy journeys to cash payment centers.
The vast majority of the cost savings were due to eliminating payments to people who were not legitimate Ebola response workers, known as “ghost workers”. The money saved was given to those who really needed it.
“Ebola response workers put their lives at risk every day. It was vitally important they received all the money they earned, with no skimming or theft. They got it immediately, as their families had no other income; and only legitimate workers got paid – no one else. Paying Ebola response workers directly into a digital wallet instead of cash met these goals, saved lives and over $10 million,” said Dr. Ruth Goodwin-Groen, Managing Director of The Better Than Cash Alliance. “Sierra Leone’s experience shows the critical importance of developing and implementing national policy frameworks and supporting infrastructure to drive effective and flexible digital payments ecosystems in advance of humanitarian crises.”