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Chapter 3.3 Tools and approaches

Cash and markets


The use of cash transfers and vouchers in humanitarian action has grown substantially in recent years. In 2016, cash transfers and vouchers were worth approximately $2.8 billion, a 40% increase from 2015.+Development Initiatives, Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2018 (Bristol: Development Initiatives, 2018) (, p. 11. Cash transfers and vouchers are particularly appropriate in cities; indeed, the Cash Learning Partnership+T. Cross and A. Johnston, Cash Transfer Programming in Urban Emergencies: A Toolkit for Practitioners, CaLP, 2011 ( argues that cash transfers should be the primary response in urban areas. Cash transfers and vouchers require functioning markets to be in place – which cities have in abundance – and working with markets compels external agencies to operate with and within existing structures.

All the indications are that cash transfers and vouchers will continue to gain momentum.

This section+This section benefited greatly from the inputs of Sarah Bailey. identifies current forms of cash transfers and vouchers. It discusses decision-making on using cash transfers. The section reviews using cash in urban refugee settings. It ends with a discussion of markets and some current market analysis approaches.

3.3.1 Types of cash transfers and vouchers

Cash transfers and vouchers can be used for a variety of humanitarian and recovery objectives. These interventions support households by providing them with resources to meet their needs, and have the secondary benefit of supporting local markets. They enable greater choice and flexibility for households compared to the distribution of in-kind goods.

Cash transfers

Cash transfers refer to the provision of money to individuals or households. Money is usually distributed using existing financial infrastructure, such as banks, money transfer companies and payment companies. In some cases transfers can be provided digitally (also referred to as ‘electronic transfers’, ‘e-transfers’ and ‘digital transfers’) via mobile devices and cards (such as prepaid, ATM, credit or debit cards). E-transfers work particularly well in urban areas, where there is often good financial infrastructure and relatively high literacy rates.+G. Smith and L. Mohiddin, A Review of Evidence of Humanitarian Cash Transfer Programming in Urban Areas, IIED Working Paper (London: IIED, 2015) ( Where financial services are weak or absent, cash can be distributed in envelopes, though this can pose risks for people receiving the cash and the entities transporting and distributing it.

Cash transfers emerged as an alternative to in-kind assistance because it does not make sense to distribute commodities that are available in local markets. They can also increase access to existing services. Humanitarian aid agencies can provide cash transfers for specific purposes – such as improving food security or access to shelter – or define objectives more broadly around supporting households to meet their basic needs. These types of transfers are sometimes referred to as ‘multipurpose cash grants’, as the intention is for households to use the transfer for multiple purposes that they choose, rather than specific ones determined by humanitarian agencies. However, money is inherently flexible, so households may use the marginal income from a cash transfer as they choose regardless of a programme’s objective.

Multipurpose cash may also provide a more integrated, multisectoral response. This is important in programming in complex urban areas (see for example Section 3.2 on ABAs).

Further information on multipurpose cash grants can be found at


Vouchers are a token, digital credit or coupon exchanged for pre-identified goods at designated locations. Vouchers are appropriate when cash transfers are not feasible (for example because of government objections), to ensure the quality of goods (such as vouchers for shelter materials) or to link recipients to specific services, for example latrine desludging. In some cases aid agencies (and/or their donors) are more comfortable with vouchers as they can influence spending towards specific goods and services in line with their missions. However, vouchers limit recipients’ choices and require administrative work to identify, monitor and pay vendors, and some evaluations have found that the prices of goods are higher in voucher shops than in local markets.+See for example: J. Drummond et al., WFP’s Regional Response to the Syria Crisis, 2011–2014 (Rome: WFP, 2015); S. Bailey, An Independent Evaluation of Concern Worldwide’s Emergency Response in North Kivu, DRC (London: ODI, 2009). It is therefore important that vouchers are selected because they are the most appropriate way to meet people’s needs in a particular context, and not simply to control people’s spending in line with a humanitarian agency’s objectives.

Cash for work

Cash for work (CFW) entails paying recipients for undertaking a labour-based activity. CFW programmes can be considered when the aid agency has the necessary equipment and technical skills to supervise the work and adhere to legal regulations, public or community works are needed, the target population has the capacity to undertake the work and meaningful assets can be created and maintained.+See International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Cash in Emergencies Toolkit, 2016 ( One criticism of such schemes is that they sometimes lead to poor-quality or unnecessary work.+See for example C. Clermont et al., Urban Disasters: Lessons from Haiti. Study of Member Agencies’ Responses to the Earthquake in Port au Prince, Haiti, January 2010 (London: DEC, 2011).

Recent research by ALNAP+H. Juillard and J. Jourdain, ALNAP Lessons Paper: Responding to Earthquakes (London: ODI, 2019). on the use of CFW in earthquake response suggests that it can be appropriate, providing income to households and creating useful work, including drain and canal clearance and rubble removal. The report cites an example from Nepal following the earthquakes in 2015, where a UNDP CFW programme was used to ‘remove debris from public buildings, demolish private houses, and help rehabilitate local government offices’.+A. Bhattacharjee, After-action Review of Nepal Earthquake Response (UNDP Crisis Response Unit, 2016), p. 15, cited in Juillard and Jourdain, Responding to Earthquakes.

The study also notes concerns in implementing CFW programmes. Citing CFW after the Haiti earthquake, it notes problems including ‘a lack of preparation and capacity to implement on a large scale, a slow governmental approval process, and difficulties in identifying both the activities to conduct and the affected populations to participate’.+Juillard and Jourdain, ALNAP Lessons Paper, p. 18. Other reports note opportunities for corruption (‘zombie crews’, where payments are made to non-existent workers) and examples of meaningless work.+D. Sanderson and P. Knox-Clarke, Responding to Urban Disasters: Learning from Previous Relief and Recovery Operations (London: ODI, 2012) ( Careful consideration should also be given to the purpose of a CFW scheme. If it is to provide cash to households, then cash transfers should be preferred – don’t think that people need to ‘earn’ the money by undertaking work for the sake of it.+F. Grünewald et al., Real-time Evaluation of Humanitarian Action Supported by DG ECHO in Haiti, 2009–2011 (Plaisian: Groupe URD, November 2010–April 2011), p. 6.

Safety nets

Safety net programmes identify vulnerable people with ongoing and regular support, usually to meet basic needs. Such approaches have been widely used in food-scarce locations and in situations of chronic poverty.+See for example In Ethiopia, for example, the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) provides transfers of food, cash or a combination to chronically foodinsecure households. Around 8 million people participate in the scheme. In Kenya, four major unconditional cash transfer programmes operate under the National Safety Net Programme (NSNP), providing monthly payments of between KES 2,000 and KES 2,700 (around $20–$30).


Any form of transfer (cash, voucher or in-kind) can be provided with conditions (conditional) or without (unconditional). Unconditional means that no action is required to receive the transfer. Conditional transfers require that households do something in order to receive the transfer (e.g. sending children to school). In some instances conditions are put in place for receiving instalments of large grants related to livelihoods recovery or shelter, such as rebuilding part of a shelter. Conditions are usually imposed to encourage behaviour change, which may not be appropriate during an emergency. Conditions are more common in social protection programmes than in humanitarian ones, such as large-scale conditional cash transfers in Latin America. Because CFW requires work to be completed, it is sometimes described in humanitarian operations as a conditional transfer.

3.3.2 Deciding when to use cash transfers

Decision-making on cash transfers in urban areas follows the same general criteria as any other response. The main questions are whether people can buy what they need safely at reasonable prices, and whether money can be delivered efficiently, safely and accountably compared to other possible forms of assistance.+High Level Panel on Humanitarian Cash Transfers, Doing Cash Differently: How Cash Transfers Can Transform Humanitarian Aid (London: ODI, 2015). The decision-making tree in Figure 3.2 highlights the kinds of responses that can be used based on the circumstances.

Figure 3.2 Decision-making tree


Source: T. Cross and A. Johnston, Cash Transfer Programming in Urban Emergencies: A Toolkit for Practitioners, CaLP, 2011 (, p. xviii.


Reasons for using cash transfers in urban areas include:

  • The cash-based nature of urban living, for example to buy food and pay rent.
  • Providing cash supports local markets.
  • Urban areas have the financial infrastructure and institutions for distributing transfers.
  • In-kind distributions are likely to be more costly and difficult and may be less or not at all appropriate.

The potential risks and challenges of using cash transfers and vouchers in urban areas are similar to those elsewhere:

  • Protection issues, such as security risks, and cultural barriers that prevent women from receiving transfers. Some groups, such as elderly or illiterate people, may find it difficult to access or spend transfers.
  • Although generally better than in rural areas, e-transfer infrastructure in urban areas may still be limited – see the example from Niamey in Box 3.3.
  • Lack of familiarity with the technology used to deliver transfers, such as mobile phones and ATM cards.

Box 3.3 Challenges in mobile money transfers in Niamey

One study of a cash transfer programme operated by Save the Children for refugees in the Nigerien capital Niamey found that ‘mobile phone delivery mechanisms could be more cost-efficient than the MFI [micro-finance institutions] mechanisms’. There were however significant set-up costs. According to the study, this was due to the need for training, given low levels of familiarity with mobile phone technology. ‘The study estimated that it would take 10 months to offset these costs.’

Source: P. Creti, Mobile Cash Transfers for Urban Refugees in Niamey, Niger, SCUK, cited in G. Smith and L. Mohiddin, A Review of Evidence of Humanitarian Cash Transfer Programming in Urban Areas, IIED Working Paper (London: IIED, 2015), p. 33.


Box 3.4 The Common Cash Facility (CCF) in Jordan

The Common Cash Facility (CCF), a partnership between UNHCR, the Cairo Amman Bank and IrisGuard, a biometrics company, provides cash assistance to refugees in Jordan. The Facility allows refugees to withdraw cash from an ATM equipped with iris scanning technology. Refugees are informed by SMS that cash is ready for withdrawal. Operated by UN agencies and NGOs, the CCF is used by over 90% of refugees in Jordan living outside camps.

Source: UNHCR, The Common Cash Facility (CCF) (Geneva: UNHCR, 2017) (

A ‘toolkit for practitioners’+Cross and Johnston, Cash Transfer Programming in Urban Emergencies. identified the following recommendations for cash transfers in cities:

  • Building trust with other urban stakeholders through partnerships and collaboration is key, especially in relation to government, which can act as both facilitator and gatekeeper of cash +For further elaboration, see ibid., p. 44.
  • Effective private sector relationships are essential. Activities include the use of technology (such as mobile cash transfers) for effective and timely coverage.
  • Design cash transfers to be flexible and aimed at a number of outcomes.
  • Design cash transfers according to the regulatory environment.
  • Advocacy is an essential programming tool. Advocacy around the use and benefits of cash transfers, for instance to host governments, can lead to more effective programmes and wider coverage.
  • Combine cash transfers with other forms of support to meet basic needs, promote livelihoods and increase access to basic services (often referred to as cash plus).

Cash programmes in displacement contexts should always consider in their design host populations, who may be at the same level of poverty as (or poorer than) displaced people (see the example in Box 3.5 from Jordan). The aim should be to reduce tensions between host and displaced groups. The provision of cash transfers and vouchers in humanitarian responses and in social protection programmes has created opportunities for stronger links between the two; in the Philippines and Nepal, for instance, aid agencies have ‘topped up’ existing social assistance transfers to people affected by disaster, and in Mali design features have been tweaked to align with social protection programmes.+C. O’Brien et al., Shock-responsive Social Protection Systems Research: Case Study – Social Protection and Humanitarian Responses to Food Insecurity and Poverty in Mali (Oxford: Oxford Policy Management, 2018). The government- led safety net programmes in Ethiopia and Kenya mentioned above provide higher transfer values and reach more people in response to worsening food insecurity.

Box 3.5 IRC’s cash transfer programme in Jordan

IRC’s cash transfer programme in the cities of Mafraq, Irbid and Ramtha in Jordan provides three types of funding to assist both Syrian refugees and Jordanian households: unconditional payments for six months for vulnerable women, a one- off winterisation payment for families and a one-off emergency payment for those especially vulnerable. Cash is distributed via ATMs and through the hawala system, ‘a method of transferring money whereby an agent in one location distributes funds to recipients upon confirmation that equivalent funds have been received by his/her associate in another location’.+IRC, Finding Economic Opportunity in the City, p. 14. Additional support includes counselling and discussion groups on managing money. A financial management training course helps with developing business plans, with viable proposals eligible for start-up grants.

Source: IRC, Finding Economic Opportunity in the City: Lessons from IRC’s Cash and Livelihoods Programmes in Cities within Lebanon and Jordan (London: IRC, 2016) (

 3.3.3 Markets and market analysis

Markets here are taken to mean where providers exchange goods and services with purchasers. Markets are both physical and non-physical spaces; they can be formal and informal, i.e. where people sell goods without paying government taxes. Informal markets in low- and middle-income countries are often substantial.

Markets may be affected by the disaster or crisis, and understanding them is important in designing and implementing humanitarian interventions. As one study notes:

Market awareness should be integral in humanitarian aid decision-making, in all sectors and regardless of the modalities of intervention being considered. Trying to understand the impacts of a crisis without understanding how a market has been and will be affected is not to see the whole picture.+S. Levine, Markets in Crises: The Implications for Humanitarian Action (London: ODI, 2017 (, p. 19.

Figure 3.3 Integrating market analysis into the different phases of the project cycle

Source: ICRC, Market Analysis Guidance (Geneva: ICRC, 2014) (

In recent years a number of market assessment tools have been developed to help agencies understand markets, and how and where their interventions can be most effective. Often this is linked to sectoral interventions, for example where purchases can be made and at what point in a supply chain to intervene, for instance with shelter provision. Examples of market analysis tools include:

  • ICRC’s Market Analysis Guidance (MAG) ‘provides processes and tools aimed at integrating market analysis into the different phases of the project cycle’ (see Figure 3.3).
  • The Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP)’s minimum requirements for market analysis+L. Austin and S. Chessex, Minimum Requirements for Market Analysis in Emergencies (Oxford: CaLP, 2013), p. 9.identifies four areas: ‘scope of the assessment, analysis, data collection, monitoring and ensuring validity of data’.
  • The Emergency Market Mapping and Analysis (EMMA) Toolkit, developed by Practical Action Consulting, IRC and Oxfam, has been widely used in a number of rapid-onset emergencies and protracted crises (see Box 3.6). Examples of the use of EMMA in urban areas can be found at

Further information on markets and crises can be found at the Markets in Crises discussion group (

Box 3.6 Using EMMA in Lebanon

EMMA was used in a rapid assessment in the North and Bekaa Governorates of Lebanon to understand how refugees and host communities use markets to earn money, and how interventions could be designed that supported livelihood opportunities for both populations. The analysis looked at labour markets, in particular construction, the service sector and agricultural labour.

The analysis concluded that ‘Overall … the construction labor market system has been drastically impacted by the crisis in Syria and that income opportunities for refugees or host communities in construction are very limited. In the current context where the supply of labor (from refugees, Syrian migrants, and Lebanese workers) exceeds the demand for workers, it is not feasible to promote large-scale construction-oriented livelihood programs’. The report however provided recommendations concerning programmes, including ‘link[ing] refugees and Lebanese with employment services and trainings providing the necessary tools to identify and qualify for income-earning possibilities’.

Source: EMMA Lebanon, Emergency Market Mapping and Analysis (EMMA) of the Construction Labor Market System in North and Bekaa, Lebanon, 2013 (, p.4.


In summary, using cash in urban humanitarian response seems an easy decision: people living in cities survive largely by buying goods, and markets abound. The recent surge in cash programming bears testimony to the benefits of this approach in terms of lower transaction costs, increased agency for the people receiving cash assistance and the benefits to local economies. Of course cash, like any other approach, is not a panacea and has its limitations (cash programming in shelter recovery, for instance, can be questioned if technical assistance is reduced as a result). Where cash has been used well in urban areas, it has been part of a larger coordinated programme of recovery, and has been accompanied by good market analysis.

Useful resources

Harvey and S. Bailey, Cash Transfer Programming in Emergencies, Good Practice Review 11 (London: ODI, 2011) (

O’Brien et al., Shock-Responsive Social Protection Systems Toolkit: Appraising the Use of Social Protection in Addressing Large-Scale Shocks (Oxford: Oxford Policy Management, 2018) (

The Cash Learning Partnership (

Operational Guidance and Toolkit for Multipurpose Cash Grants, various agencies, 2015 (—web.pdf).

International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Cash in Emergencies Toolkit, 2016 (

Cash and Market, Humanitarian Response, 2018 (