Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Cash and Vouchers: A Good Thing for the Protection of Beneficiaries?

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Cash and Vouchers: A Good Thing for the Protection of Beneficiaries?

Article excerpt

The international humanitarian community has moved from the more traditional approach of providing in-kind assistance to the use of cash and vouchers. In situations of displacement they can work as a dignified, easily accessible form of assistance.

In late 2011 the World Food Programme (WFP) conducted a literature review of previous studies of cash and voucher transfers and a limited survey of their own programmes to investigate whether cash and voucher transfers were working towards improving protection of beneficiaries, or at least doing them no harm. WFP and UNHCR then designed a multi-country field study covering a range of scenarios (urban, rural, camp, non-camp, emergency and development) in eight countries; in five of these, cash and voucher transfers are used in displacement settings (Chad, Jordan, Ecuador, North Darfur and Pakistan).

The study examined the potential protection and gender impacts in terms of dignity and empowerment of beneficiaries, beneficiary safety, and whether and how beneficiaries' access to assistance was affected, as well as gender relations and community social cohesion, and beneficiary preferences. The research found that in most cases the protection and gender impacts identified were the result of programme design and how it addressed (or did not address) protection and gender considerations, rather than as a direct result of cash transfers and vouchers. An exception to this was that cash and vouchers were felt to be a more dignified form of assistance for their recipients.

Promoting dignity: In situations of displacement individuals accustomed to supporting themselves and their families suddenly become dependent on aid and charity. While their sense of dignity cannot be easily and fully restored, cash and voucher transfers offer some choice and a small degree of control in a situation where many feel they have none. As one refugee in Jordan noted, unconditional cash transfers provided "some small scrap of dignity" in a difficult life filled with uncertainty. Beneficiaries consulted in Sudan and in Ecuador liked vouchers (for food and non-food items) because they offered some opportunity to choose, despite that choice being limited. Additionally, in Sudan the food vouchers allowed beneficiaries to choose goods that were locally and culturally preferred and appropriate to local diets and food preparation practices.

By design, however, vouchers limit purchases to pre-defined items in shops pre-selected by the assistance agency. In some cases agencies placed conditions on what cash could be spent on too fearing that beneficiaries would make 'bad choices' or choices that did not correspond to the agencies' mandate, or would engage in 'anti-social spending', (for example, on alcohol, cigarettes or visits to beauty parlours). However, the research revealed very little evidence of anti-social spending (although admittedly hard to track) and in those cases where it was found the communities had mechanisms to address it. Moreover, in certain circumstances, what agencies deemed anti-social spending had positive psychosocial impacts - including increasing the feeling of belonging in the community, and gaining goodwill from others for future times of need.

Conditions were also attached to cash to promote behavioural change. In Chad, UNHCR's conditions included requiring recipients' children to attend school and get health check-ups. While these created some positive results, there were concerns about their longer-term sustainability. Some beneficiaries noted that the behaviours would stop when the cash stopped. Moreover, one community leader noted that, although taking children for check-ups was certainly a good thing given the poor sanitary and housing conditions in the camp, she had not noticed an improvement in the health of the children. This suggests that the conditions applied to cash transfers - in the absence of other improvements that led to better health for children - did not have the desired or intended effect. …

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