by Malcolm Temple
Malcolm Temple is a Master in Public Affairs candidate at Princeton University and a Princeton in Africa Fellow at World Food Programme in Rwanda. He interned at CUSLAR in 2013.
Across Ecuador, nearly 200,000 refugees displaced by conflict in neighboring Colombia receive their monthly food assistance. But there are no tented distribution stations. There are no humanitarian workers passing out packages of maize grain and beans. Nor are there large trucks hauling in hundreds of sacks from nearby warehouses.
That is because food assistance now comes in the form of mobile money and electronic vouchers that recipients use to purchase food in local markets. In the humanitarian industry, where refugees have little say over the food or other forms of assistance they receive, cash is restoring autonomy over one of life’s most basic decisions—what to eat.
Traditionally, food aid has come in the form of in-kind food distributions: rations of cereals, pulses, oils and salt, which refugees can cook in camps or homes. But as of 2014, in-kind food is no longer the default modality of food aid.
Since being piloted in Sri Lanka in 2006 by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)—currently the largest humanitarian agent of cash-based transfers (CBT)—cash has been utilized to respond to a wide range of crises. In the past two years, WFP has used cash and vouchers in over 56 countries including eight countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Through this new way of doing food aid, refugees are provided with electronic vouchers that can be redeemed in selected shops or with mobile phones through which they are wired incremental disbursements of money that can be withdrawn for cash. Amounts of money are based on the projected market prices of the in-kind distribution food basket in local markets in the area.
Under the traditional modality, refugees have no choices about the food they receive, leading many to resell the packages of food they are given in local markets for cash to buy food they prefer.
According to monitoring findings, refugees overwhelmingly prefer CBT to in-kind food assistance for a number of reasons. These include having the flexibility to purchase the food of their choice and not having to wait in lines for long periods. Findings also indicate that refugees receiving CBT have marginally higher food consumption and dietary diversity compared to those receiving in-kind food. And agencies are taking note of this.
But it is not only refugees who are benefitting from the new aid approach. CBT are helping humanitarian agencies simplify the logistics of distribution and cut down on the costs of transporting and storing massive amounts of food. Likewise, with CBT, refugees buy locally, thus local food suppliers are not cut out of the market. Through CBT, cash is injected into hosting communities, which help local economies during the duration of CBT programs.
The shift to cash shows the industry is recognizing beneficiaries as best placed to determine how to meet their own needs. In the donor-driven industry, accountability has largely lied with governments who fund humanitarian operations—not aid recipients themselves. As a result, power has been greatly lopsided. In a typical free market relationship, consumers have a choice of goods. But in the aid world, the ‘consumers’ do not choose when, what kind or even if they will receive goods.
Nevertheless, the aid industry is evolving and becoming more attuned to the need for humanitarians to assist rather than solve. Innovations such as CBT are initiatives by agencies to empower beneficiaries by allowing them to decide what they need. In circumstances where agencies are recruited to get food to those in need as quickly and efficiently as possible, food security often takes priority over food sovereignty. But CBT is a step toward changing this trend.
Despite these developments, it will still be some time before the power to makes choices over food aid is placed entirely in recipients’ hands. For one, cash and vouchers are not feasible everywhere. Relative effectiveness depends heavily on the severity of food insecurity, on the presence and functionality of local markets where refugees are located, and on the level of technology in host communities and countries. Moreover, agencies may choose to switch from CBT to in-kind food in situations where local food prices increase during agricultural lean seasons.
However, the trend is promising and restoring dignity to many affected by such circumstances. For Colombian refugees in Ecuador, freedom over food choices means a little taste of normalcy amid a challenging transition.