Menu ENN Search

Mastercard experiences during the humanitarian response in southern Europe

By Paul Musser and Sasha Kapadia

View this article as a pdf

Paul Musser is Senior Vice President of Humanitarian, Development & Donors, Mastercard. Paul Musser leads the team responsible for Mastercard’s humanitarian and development solutions. His work focuses on creating and implementing innovative business models and technology solutions leveraging a shared value approach. His clients and partners include UN agencies, international NGOs and funders. Current examples of projects he and his colleagues are working on include the Mastercard Lab for Financial Inclusion in Kenya, commercialising the new electronic aid voucher service known as Mastercard Aid Network, and developing new approaches to data privacy, identity and financial inclusion enablement. Musser possesses more than two decades of payment and senior leadership expertise. 

Sasha Kapadia serves as Director, International Development, in Mastercard’s Public Private Partnerships division. In her role, she works with humanitarian and development organisations to jointly deploy programmes that showcase the ability of electronic payments to transform lives. Notably, she helped build the Mastercard Aid Network, a digital voucher platform designed to work in remote areas, and launch prepaid programmes for refugees in Southern Europe. Prior to Mastercard, she worked at the U.S. Department of State in the Office of Afghanistan Affairs and the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She is a graduate of the Fletcher School, where she focused on fragile and failed state development, and New York University.

Location: Southern Europe 

What we know: The private sector is playing an increasing role in the humanitarian and development sectors; one keen area of innovation is around cash programming.

What this article adds: Mastercard has worked with public and non-profit partners to enable safer and more efficient aid (cash) distribution in recent emergencies.  Innovations include Mastercard Aid Network, a digital voucher platform, and Mastercard Send, a means to distribute funds via mobile phones. In Southern Europe in 2016, Mercy Corps launched a pilot programme in partnership with Mastercard and the Serbian Ministry of Labour to distribute prepaid debit cards to eligible refugees traveling through Serbia, the first programme in the region. Due to its success, Mercy Corps and Mastercard launched a complementary cash transfer programme in Greece to provide basic assistance to refugees - currently accounting for 25% of all refugee cash programming in Greece and its islands. Going forward, Mastercard sees a focus on the “customer” experience, that of both Mercy Corps and the refugee, as critical to the success of a public-private partnership.

Following the issue of a cash distribution debit card, a Mercy Corps team member helps Walaa, 23, and her three children withdraw cash from an ATM.Nearly four years ago, Mastercard brought together a group of aid organisations for a joint workshop under the assumption that the private sector could play an important role in spurring new innovations for the humanitarian and development sector. We quickly discovered that we had a lot to learn about payments in the humanitarian context. 

To bridge the knowledge gap, we took the same approach we use with our banking partners – we focused on listening to their needs. That approach has proven to be successful. Working with public and non-profit partners, we have empowered more than 2.5 million vulnerable people – the vast majority of them refugees across Africa, Asia, and Europe in countries including Kenya, Jordan, Lebanon, Serbia, Yemen, Nepal, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Greece, and the Philippines – through faster, safer and more efficient aid distribution. 

Instrumental to our success has been the ability to provide flexible solutions tailored to meet our partners’ needs in a variety of contexts. During our consultations with international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), we heard about the difficulty to reach recipients in an effective and efficient way. They needed an aid delivery mechanism that leveraged local economies and enabled recipient choice. 

We created the Mastercard Aid Network, a digital voucher platform that utilises chip cards, Android devices, and an easy-to-navigate app, in response to this need. It helps streamline aid delivery, even in remote environments, since it operates offline and does not require partnerships with additional service providers. Since its launch in the autumn of 2015, the Mastercard Aid Network has been rolled out by Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, and World Vision all around the world. 

In a similar vein, we have also adapted our disbursements technology, Mastercard Send, with the American Red Cross to distribute funds to drought-affected families in Indonesia via their mobile phones for the purchase of water and other items. The pilot programme provided a safe and convenient way for beneficiaries to access aid so that participants could spend the funds on what they needed most.

However, it is our prepaid technology that has made the biggest impact on supporting the needs of refugees. 

Providing refugees with mobility, flexibility and dignity

In 2013, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Mastercard rolled out a “digital food” programme in Lebanon and Jordan to deliver food assistance to Syrian refugees so they could access food locally through Mastercard branded prepaid cards. Loaded at the beginning of each month, the cards are used to purchase food from more than 400 local shops, boosting the local economy and providing Syrians with access to fresh produce, dairy products, poultry and meats. Since the money is automatically transferred onto the cards, refugees need not wait in line to receive their benefits. 

In Southern Europe beginning in February 2016, Mercy Corps launched a pilot programme in partnership with Mastercard and the Serbian Ministry of Labour to distribute prepaid debit cards to eligible refugees traveling through Serbia. Families received cards with a value of about €210 euros, and individuals approximately €70 euros, and the funds could be used to make purchases to meet immediate needs. Mercy Corps’ program was one of the first in the region to use an international cashless payment mechanism to respond to the refugee crisis.

The cards were distributed to Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans whose travels had taken them to Serbia, with an emphasis on reaching the most vulnerable: people with disabilities, the elderly, women traveling alone and those in financial need. In one case, a woman traveling on her own asked where she could buy eyeglasses upon receiving her card. In another example, a pregnant woman temporarily residing at a refugee camp quickly used her Mastercard prepaid debit card to help feed herself and her unborn child.

The program was designed so that cards came pre-loaded with the estimated funds families would need to buy essential supplies and obtain shelter over the 72-hour period typically spent in Serbia. During the pilot, approximately €66,900 euros were distributed to nearly 400 families and individuals. Within the first month, more than €52,957 euros was spent on such items as transportation, food, medications and lodging. 

Based on the success of the pilot programme in Serbia, Mercy Corps and Mastercard launched a complementary cash transfer programme in Greece in March 2016 to ensure refugees could cover their basic needs. This programme began on the islands of Lesvos and Leros, where nearly 1,000 people living in shelters for extremely vulnerable people were provided with cash assistance via prepaid cards. The programme expanded to five camps on the mainland in Greece. Mercy Corps is now responsible for roughly 25 percent of all cash programming among the refugee response in Greece and its islands, currently distributing around €600,000 a month at seven locations. A total of 16,828 beneficiaries have received a share of €2,849,100 on the Greek mainland and islands.

When we began discussing potential solutions with Mercy Corps for the delivery of aid to refugees, rapid response was the primary factor. Mercy Corps wanted to provide a solution to quickly address refugee needs, so we determined that the best course would be to leverage existing infrastructure. 

We identified two potential options: mass distribution of anonymous gift cards or personalised prepaid cards. While the gift cards were attractive because they did not require “Know Your Customer” (KYC) due diligence, they didn’t allow for ATM withdrawals, a must for Mercy Corps. KYC is a process by which financial service providers obtain information about the identity of its customers in order to ensure that services are not misused. In addition, only up to €250 could be loaded onto the gift cards with no option to reload funds. With the personalised prepaid cards, the limit for loads is much higher and programme participants could access ATMs. Only a small amount of information such as name and birthdate would be captured. 

At Mastercard we believe innovation not only occurs when you build something new, but can also happen when you are able to leverage existing technology in a new way. Working with Mercy Corps, we modified a programme typically used by employers to distribute employees’ wages electronically via a card. In the humanitarian setting, Mercy Corps was the “employer” distributing funds to refugees. Mercy Corps distributed unrestricted cash to refugee recipients via a prepaid debit card. These cards were not branded with Mercy Corps’ logo or that of a donor – refugees were indistinguishable from any other payment card holder, providing the dignity of interacting in the local market as locals would. They also had the freedom to use the cards wherever Mastercard is accepted, regardless of geography or type of shop.

The cards were issued in partnership with a bank in the United Kingdom, and Mastercard worked directly with Mercy Corps on the programme implementation. The funds were bulk loaded onto the cards via the Mastercard platform.  

What we learned

In August 2016, executives from Mastercard joined Mercy Corps and other corporations, including TripAdvisor and Airbnb, on a field visit to Greece. We wanted to better understand the conditions and needs within the refugee community, assess the impact of our solutions, as well as learn how we could do more. The trip was eye opening. 

Nothing can prepare you for such an experience – hearing first-hand accounts from refugees on their plight, abandoning all they knew for safety and protection. For example, while visiting Pikpa, a small but inspiring camp on the island of Lesvos, two small children played in their tent while their mother recounted the harrowing journey from Pakistan, the pain of starvation and losing her father to criminals along the way. She still doesn’t know his ultimate fate. 

Later we heard the story shared by parents of four boys who, on the day they left Syria, needed to make the unimaginable choice of leaving one 10-year-old behind because he could not be found at the moment they needed to leave. Again, they live with no knowledge of his fate.

Even in these terrible circumstances, there is some relief. Humanitarian organisations are making significant contributions to put lives back together and help Greeks build inclusive communities for these refugees. 

During the trip, we gained fundamental insight into how our prepaid card programme was working on the ground, which will allow us to make improvements and identify best practices for future programmes. Three concepts – the “customer” experience, end-to-end delivery, and need for flexibility – resonated as keys to success. 

It goes without saying that operating within a humanitarian context poses unique challenges. We learned that joint implementation with the partner is necessary to ensure sound practices are being followed to minimise risk and create efficiencies. 

We found out that our platform should accommodate various needs that arise over the course of the programme. While ATM access was a requirement for programme implementation, cash withdrawals didn’t allow for line of sight into how and when the funds were spent. Mercy Corps used the reports from Mastercard’s platform to gain insight into programme participant purchases, and as such, the needs of the population. ATM functionality, however, could not be turned off in the midst of the programme, so Mercy Corps relied on self-reported data on cash spending, a less than ideal scenario. 

Mercy Corps believes cash-based transfers are the most rapid, efficient and dignified manner of providing humanitarian assistance. Even a small amount of cash lets people choose how they prioritise their individual needs, in addition to offering a measure of protection. 

Programmes like Mercy Corps’ infuse cash into the local economy, fostering economic and social ties between the host population and refugees. If the money is not immediately spent, it is not lost. The implementing agency can reallocate the funds for other purposes at a later time. In-kind programmes that distribute food baskets or blankets lack this flexibility. 

Over the course of more than a year working together on these prepaid programmes, Mercy Corps and Mastercard made significant strides to improve the lives of refugees, and at the same time, learned critical lessons that can be applied to future programmes. As a result, both organizations have generated industry recognition for their efforts and demonstrated leadership among peers in this space.

With Mastercard’s support, Mercy Corps was one of the first international NGOs on the ground to run electronic cash-based programmes. Mercy Corps provided Mastercard with a better understanding of the needs of the sector, which will inform our product development process. In fact, Mastercard is in the process of building a fit for purpose humanitarian prepaid product that incorporates feedback from partners like Mercy Corps and the World Food Programme.

For more information, contact: Sasha Kapadia, Director, International Development, email:


More like this

FEX: Mercy Corps cash programming in the Greece migrant crisis response

By Alan Glasgow View this article as a pdf Alan Glasgow is Mercy Corps Director of the European Migration Response. In 2015, Mercy Corps established its European Migration...

FEX: Evolution of WFP’s food assistance programme for Syrian refugees in Jordan

By Edgar Luce For the past two years, Edgar Luce has been working for WFP Jordan as a Programme Officer by monitoring operations, writing reports and acting as the VAM...

FEX: Retrospective qualitative analysis of an infant and young child feeding intervention among refugees in Europe

Summary of MSc thesis By Alexandra Svoboda Alexandra Svoboda is a student on the MSc Nutrition for Global Health course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine...

FEX: WFP e-voucher programme in Lebanon

By Ekram Mustafa El-Huni Ekram Mustafa El-Huni is WFP's Head of Programmes in Beirut, Lebanon. She has worked in a variety of roles with WFP at the headquarters, regional...

FEX: Meeting cross-sectoral needs of Syrian refugees and host communities in Lebanon

By Leah Campbell This summary is based on a longer written case study written by Leah Campbell for CaLP1. A video presenting the programme is also available2. If you would...

FEX: Impact evaluation of a cash-transfer programme for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

By Christian Lehmann and Daniel T. R. Masterson Daniel Masterson is a PhD student in Political Science at Yale University. Daniel worked for UNHCR in Syria in 2007 and 2008....

FEX: Nutrition security emergency programming in diverse urban contexts

By Marie Sardier, Joanna Friedman, Maureen Gallagher and Julien Jacob Marie Sardier is Food Security and Livelihoods Advisor with Action contre la Faim (ACF) in Paris...

FEX: Income and employment support (Special Supplement 3)

5.1 Introduction The provision of cash as an emergency response has the potential to impact on all elements of the livelihoods framework by providing the means to protect or...

en-net: A Summary of Assessment Findings and Recommendations: The Situation of Refugee and Migrant Women, Greece 2016

I am concerned about the wording of a report I came across on ReliefWeb: "A Summary of Assessment Findings and Recommendations; The Situation of Refugee and Migrant...

FEX: Cash voucher programme and rabbit raising intervention in Gaza

By Elena Qleibo, Ena’am Abu Nada, Wassem Mushtaha and Julie Campbell Elena Qleibo is the Oxfam Food Security Coordinator for the Gaza programme. She has been working in...

FEX: Designing an inter-agency multipurpose cash transfer programme in Lebanon

By Isabelle Pelly Isabelle Pelly was Save the Children's Food Security & Livelihoods Adviser in Lebanon until September 2014, and co-chair of the Lebanon Cash Working Group....

FEX: References for Special Supplement 3

Beatrice, a beneficiary of the CRS seed voucher scheme in Burundi 1. Abdulai A., Barret, C., Hoddinott, J. (2004, June). Does food aid really have disincentive effects? new...

FEX: Better understanding vulnerability in Serbia

By Kate Ogden Since July 2000, Kate Ogden has been a food security advisor in ACF headquarters, Paris. Previously she spent three years working in food security and nutrition...

FEX: Oxfam

Interview by Jeremy Shoham. Nick Roseveare (Deputy Director of the Humanitarian Department) and Susanne Jaspars (Food Security and Nutrition Co-ordinator) were...

FEX: Food distribution in Mandera district (Kenya)

By Manuel Duce-Marques The author, Manuel Duce-Marques is a qualified nurse who spent several years working for MSF Spain in Mandera District, Northeast Kenya. He has just...

FEX: What affects the cost of delivering cash transfers in humanitarian settings?

By Clare O'Brien and Fidelis Hove Clare O'Brien is a senior consultant in the Poverty and Social Protection team at Oxford Policy Management, a development...

FEX: Kosovo Evaluation

During 1998 and early 1999 the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbian) forces increased their efforts to 'ethnically cleanse' Kosovo. They justified this on the basis that...

FEX: IRC cash and livelihoods support programme in Lebanon

By Francesca Battistin Francesca Battistin leads the International Rescue Committee (IRC) cash assistance and livelihoods recovery interventions in Lebanon. She has a...

FEX: Experiences of the e-Food card programme in the Turkish refugee camps

By Kathleen Inglis and Jennifer Vargas Kathleen Inglis currently works with the WFP as the Programme Communications Officer. She has worked in humanitarian aid in various...

FEX: Introduction (Special Supplement 3)

Glossary AAH Action Against Hunger ACF Action Contre la Faim ACF-E ACF-Spain ALDEF Arid Lands Development Focus AREN Association pour la Revitalisation de l'Elevage...


Reference this page

Paul Musser and Sasha Kapadia (). Mastercard experiences during the humanitarian response in southern Europe. Field Exchange 54, February 2017. p108.



Download to a citation manager

The below files can be imported into your preferred reference management tool, most tools will allow you to manually import the RIS file. Endnote may required a specific filter file to be used.