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UNHCR: Programmes for direct cash-aid to the displaced reaches record $430m in 2016

Briefing notes

UNHCR: Programmes for direct cash-aid to the displaced reaches record $430m in 2016

16 December 2016 Also available in:
Syrian refugee Suhail Qamber uses a card provided by UNHCR to withdraw cash from an ATM machine in Saida, Lebanon in this 2014 file photo.

2016 has been a record year for UNHCR’s cash-based aid programme for refugees and other displaced people, with an expected $430 million in cash going directly to people in need by year’s end – signalling an important shift in how the world’s refugee situations are increasingly being managed. 

Traditionally, aid has been largely delivered through in-kind support.  But with some 80 per cent of the world’s displaced people living in cities, and often with either only limited or no access to legal employment, cash aid is now a critical tool across all sectors – from health and food, to shelter and meeting basic needs.  UNHCR is working with other agencies and the private sector to streamline aid with tangible benefits for refugees and for our donors. 

For the individual refugee, it also empowers them by giving them the choice over how to meet their most immediate needs. Freed from having to queue or travel to receive one-size-fits-all aid, people can buy their own food, fuel, clothes, medicine or pay the rent based on their personal priorities. In this way, refugees contribute directly to local economies and foster positive relations with host communities.   

Spearheaded in the Middle East

UNHCR has spearheaded the new emphasis on cash in its Middle East operations. Cash programming expanded in response to the Iraqi refugee crisis in 2007 and scaled up to new levels in response to the recent Syria crisis. Some 1.8 million people in the region received up to $355 million in cash-based aid in 2016.   

In Jordan, where we have been giving cash to high vulnerability Syrian refugees in urban areas since 2012, studies show cash is the preferred means of assistance. Vulnerable families are often headed by women alone who can face cultural, legal and childcare obstacles finding work. Cash aid is helping prevent thousands of refugees facing severe hardship and resorting to desperate survival strategies – such as pulling children out of school, child labour and begging, survival sex, early marriage or returning to war zones.

The Jordan programme, which provides cash mainly through the use of iris scans at ATMs linked to UNHCR’s pioneering biometric registration system, has recently been expanded. It now includes extra support for refugees to get health care, buy fuel and clothes for winter (including for refugees in camps), and one-off emergency support. 

Recent developments

We have been expanding our use of cash through the region in 2016.

Last month in Turkey, for example, UNHCR expanded its new cash distribution system to help more than half a million refugees and asylum-seekers in urban areas in keeping warm this winter. Debit cards are being provided to 108,000 refugee families, including 96,000 Syrian households, through UNHCR’s financial services provider – Turkey’s Postal and Telegraph Corporation (PTT). Eligible families can receive the cards, linked to their identity numbers, at any PTT Office countrywide and use them at any shop which is part of the MasterCard circuit network. The $27 million winter programme in Turkey is operating in 50 out of 81 provinces from November to January.  UNHCR cash programme for Turkey includes a personalized SMS system, an interactive webpage which provides real-time verification of eligibility by applicants, call-centre support and leaflets in several languages.

New efficiencies 

Our new partnerships with cash-based aid are yielding efficiency dividends and improving services to refugees. 

In Lebanon, we are part of a new partnership forged between three UN agencies and six NGOs giving refugees aid through the first-of-its-kind common card. Launched earlier this month in Beirut, the common card simplifies aid delivery to vulnerable refugees from various agencies.  Instead of having to report to various distribution points, refugees can now get help through one e-card and buy food, fuel or clothes, pay their rent and funnel cash back into the local economy. The system has one joint assessment, one bank agreement, one distribution, one call centre and other common elements. 

The efficiency gains of this new approach between UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF and a consortium of six NGOs has led to unprecedented reductions in costs.  For example, in Lebanon, thanks to the common systems in place, the costs in some areas have been halved or brought to zero.

Cash programming from various agencies in Lebanon serves over 900,000 beneficiaries.  UNHCR is already helping 150,000 vulnerable people (30,000 families) through monthly cash-based assistance year-round, and in November started assisting 840,000 refugees in need with seasonal winter aid to help them stay warm and dry throughout March next year. 

Beyond the Middle East

While two-thirds of UNHCR’s cash-based assistance in 2016 was spent in the Middle East region, we are also expanding our programmes in Africa, Asia and Europe, in line with commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit in May.

Cash has been a part of our aid to refugees since the 1980s, but we have massively scaled up in recent years. This year we have pursued cash-based help programmes in 60 countries worldwide – a doubling of the number of operations over the past four years. 

Our new Policy on Cash-Based Interventions launched in October commits UNHCR to doubling the proportion of cash in its total direct assistance to refugees by the end of 2020. To deliver on this, we are building a growing team of experts in delivering cash programmes. Next year, we are significantly expanding our team of cash experts worldwide.  This year we have been training staff to assess the feasibility of cash-based programmes, integrating these findings into our programme and contingency planning across the globe. 

UNHCR’s largest cash-based programmes in 2016 were in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan, Egypt, Kenya, Turkey and Yemen. 

In 2017, at least 11 countries – Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, Uganda, Afghanistan and Iran – will receive dedicated technical support to expand cash-based programmes for the most vulnerable refugees.

UNHCR is grateful to its many donors who support our cash-based aid either directly or indirectly. These include: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, Norway, United Kingdom and United States.


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