As the face of humanitarian crisis changes, donors are realizing that traditional methods of providing aid can fall short. The delivery of basic needs such as medicine, shelter, food and water is becoming more costly, more complicated and is sometimes made impossible by fighting or political obstacles.
To adapt, a growing number of NGOs are turning to providing cash assistance – giving aid recipients small amounts of money to use on whatever they need. Humanitarian experts say cash in a crisis is usually faster and more flexible than other forms of assistance. It is less vulnerable to intervention from officials and many recipients consider it more dignified than food aid.
Some experts say cash relief can have an added benefit: Helping women gain financial autonomy and stronger decision-making powers within their families.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) last year produced research assessing cash transfers as part of the organization’s humanitarian aid work in Jordan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Women who participated reported feeling “strong, confident, respected, independent and able to negotiate,” the study says. Some women added that they also experienced “a reduction in household tension and fewer conflicts.”
Part of the IRC research looked at a detailed case study of the organization’s experience in Jordan, where it has been working since 2007 supporting Iraqi refugees, and since 2012 with Syrians in camps and urban areas in the country’s north. In 2013, the Women Protection and Empowerment program, which focused on gender-based violence risks affecting Syrian women and girls in Jordan, started using cash transfers to reduce these risks, which were driven by the difficulties of surviving in urban areas without safe or sustainable access to financial resources.
The program provided cash assistance to 4,100 households, mostly Syrian, by late 2015. Monthly cash assistance packages ranged from 120–180 Jordanian dinar ($170–$254) over six months, depending on household size.
“All our arguments [were] about the lack of income and the things I request,” one woman who participated in the program told the researchers. “During the six months, the cash reduced conflict between us.”
“We are building the evidence base on how increased income can affect women’s and girls’ decision-making, control over resources and violence in the home,” Daphne Jayasinghe, IRC Chief Policy Adviser for Economic Programs, says.
“We can hypothesize that providing cash relief will help women make decisions in the home. And if sufficient cash is given such that basic needs are met, this also presents an opportunity to invest in livelihoods, which can further women’s economic empowerment.”
Over the past few years, cash assistance has become a key part of relief programming for a number of organizations. In 2016, various donor governments and leading aid agencies at the World Humanitarian Summit signed the Grand Bargain, an agreement to increase and improve emergency aid funding that included a commitment to boost cash-based programming.
“Currently 7 percent of humanitarian assistance is delivered via cash and many agencies have made commitments to scale to 20 percent,” says Tenzin Manell, senior technical adviser of Cash and Livelihoods at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “Unfortunately, there are dips in funding for humanitarian response in the face of increasing crisis around the world.”
The IRC says it aims to deliver 20-25 percent of its humanitarian assistance through cash, up from 6.26 percent in 2015.
The money is focused on vulnerable households, such as displaced families, those on very low incomes or those with upwards of five children. Cash supplied in envelopes can work for smaller crises, but for bigger operations – where physically carrying large amounts of money presents security risks for both recipients and aid workers – the money is transferred via a pre-paid cash card and an ATM. This often requires some training for recipients on how to use the cards, but it allows for better user monitoring and targeting and minimizes fraud, according to a National Audit Office report.
In Yemen, Oxfam’s cash-transfer scheme, which has reached 400,000 people in Al Hodeidah and Hajjah since 2011, has allowed women more influence over household purchases and in some cases given them the means to set up small businesses.
“I met women who had been trained in making jewelry in Hajjah governorate. They had been given cash to support them in purchasing materials and setting up their own businesses, including financial management training,” says Colette Fearon, deputy humanitarian director at Oxfam. “They spoke of how … they had learnt a new skill and were productive, which afforded them more dignity.”
Cash Aid is Not Enough
But experts also warn that using cash relief as an alternative to traditional aid is only a small part of a long and complex battle for economic equality.
Jessica Hagen-Zanker, the research fellow leading the Overseas Development Institute’s migration work and one of the authors of a recent report on cash transfers, notes that many cash relief programs are short-term and have narrow objectives aimed at providing for immediate, basic survival. Many specifically target women and “in some cases, these programs can have positive impacts on women’s empowerment.” But her research showed that even programs aimed at women did not necessarily lead to those women gaining more control over financial decisions.
“We concluded that just targeting women is not enough and there are many other factors that determine women’s empowerment,” Hagen-Zanker says. The benefits of cash transfers for women, she says, are often limited by entrenched household structures, power dynamics and women’s weak social and cultural position. One study even found an increase in physical violence against wives when the cash transfer level was large, the husband was uneducated and the wife was significantly younger.
If cash transfer schemes are to help women gain more power over their money, they may need to include more complementary interventions, such as education programs, sensitization projects and awareness-raising initiatives, the report found.
“I don’t want to say [cash aid programs] fail, but they just have different objectives,” says Hagen-Zanker.
“Empowerment is not something you can achieve quickly.”