Scan Tool – Realizing value for money in humanitarian aid

Growing numbers of people are in critical need of aid and so increased funds are needed now more than ever. It is crucial that humanitarian organisations direct these funds towards the right programs: cost-effective interventions that have the biggest impact for the most people. However, how does one establish which ways of working are indeed most cost-effective? To tackle this problem, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Mercy Corps, Save the Children, and other partners joined forces to develop the innovative SCAN tool.

The Systematic Cost Analysis (SCAN) tool is a web-based software which allows field staff to conduct rigorous and rapid cost-efficiency analyses of their programs. Re-using existing accounting and monitoring data, this innovative tool allows for an informed understanding of the costs of humanitarian activities.

Of course, such analyses were carried out before SCAN came about too, but this was usually done by hand. “Such analyses were at risk of being inconsistent, time consuming, and leaving room for error,” explains Caitlin Tulloch, Associate Director for Best Use of Resources at the IRC. Inspired by the tax-preparation software TurboTax, the SCAN automates this process to a large extent, making it a lot faster and easier. Because SCAN helps staff generate this data for dozens of projects across multiple NGOs in more than 20 countries, the tool also enables the user to compare different approaches in different context. This creates valuable insight into what makes projects more or less expensive in various circumstances.

The potential of such a tool is huge. ‘Humanitarians have a duty to use money for the best possible effect,’ says Rachel Glennerster, Chief Economist at DFID.  She warns that is not the same of race to the bottom, or cutting corners. Understanding how one can either reduce the total costs, or increase the outputs, of a project, rather supports the user of SCAN to maximise reach and impact with limit funds.

The development of the SCAN tool has been supported by a growing conviction that we need ‘value for money’ in humanitarian aid. The insight that the SCAN provides, allows such awareness regarding best use of resources to grow, while also helping to build that mindset further, as it provides a growing evidence base of what works and what does not.

Mercy Corps staff in Uganda work with IRC colleagues on an analysis of a livelihoods program in SCAN. Credits: Nick MacDonald

The potential for impact of a tool like SCAN is directly linked to the extent that different humanitarian organisations are willing to use the same tool, and securely share information through it. Currently, the tool is being used by IRC, Mercy Corps, and Save the Children.

The success of this coordinated effort by these various agencies, is a direct result of the fact that their collaboration started at an early stage of the development of SCAN already. Only through the joint development was the team able to develop a version of SCAN that was acceptable for all agencies.

Deep collaboration has also helped ensure that the ongoing funding and support for SCAN are fit for the needs of NGOs. Ms. Tulloch remembers that “We had this idea that making SCAN open-source might help increase adoption, but after talking to IT teams at all of the partners we realized they didn’t have the capacity to manage an open-source software in-house. They were the ones pushing for us to deliver the software as a service.”  The partners now plan to continue supporting SCAN through a central consortium which engages a private sector software developer, and also provides a means for sharing results and reflecting on lessons learned about efficient humanitarian delivery.

The SCAN tool is already proving its worth in the field. Interestingly, the innovative software has contributed to establish the value for money of using another important innovative practice in the humanitarian field; that of providing cash-assistance to people affected by disaster instead of the more traditional distribution of food and non-food items.

Now, the team behind the SCAN tool is hoping to scale up further. “ ‘Scale’ is actually a product of many decisions across sectors,” explains Ms. Tulloch. The team therefore aims to connect to even more donors and more agencies, as well as to ongoing processes in humanitarian aid. As the SCAN tool was actually funded by the Dutch Relief Alliance (DRA) Innovation Fund, DRA member Stichting Vluchteling (Member of DRA and IRC’s counterpart in the Netherlands) already helps to promote interest and adoption of the SCAN tool among Netherlands based NGOs.

For Ms. Tulloch, the continued collaboration with a growing number of partners this implies, is a no-brainer. “Impact at scale can only be made if the tool is being adopted widely”. Several Netherlands based DRA members are currently considering using the SCAN tool, and the SCAN team welcomes other agencies to join.

Would you like to learn more about the SCAN tool, check out this webinar, or contact Caitlin Tulloch ( for further information.

Cover photo: IRC staff in Iraq distribute cash transfers to displaced families, credits: Nick MacDonald.