Could donating cash be the simplest way to help refugees?

Posted August 20

As the number of global refugees reaches a record 65.3 million, some advocates say cash allowances may be the best way to help.

Quartz reported that Andrew Harper, a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan, has extended monthly allowances to 1.9 million of some of the most vulnerable refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt.

The idea, while seemingly simplistic in nature, is not very common among other world aid organizations. The Center for Global Development estimated in its September 2015 report that only about 6 percent of world aid is given in cash.

But Harper argues that cash donations are more beneficial to both the refugees and to the organizations trying to help.

"If the $20 billion or so in aid the world gives to refugees were given in cash, economists argue, spending could be better tracked, and security could improve." Elizabeth Macbride wrote for Quartz. "Moreover, the administrative savings would be so great, we could help far more people for the same amount of money: 30% more people, some studies have estimated."

Owen Barder also pointed out in a 2015 Telegraph article that donating items can be risky, writing that "when aid is provided as supplies, part of it inevitably ends up in the pockets of foreign suppliers or middlemen."

Barder goes on to address the risks of carrying cash, like theft, but argues that mobile payments or debit cards with PIN numbers could reduce the danger of refugees being robbed.

Another reason so few organizations give cash, Quartz reported, is that some worry about what recipients will spend it on. Instead, to maintain some control, they give vouchers that can only be spent on food or clothing.

But a 2014 IRC report found that Lebanese families prioritized their spending on food, clothing, gas and debt payments when given debit cards. And it found that more kids stayed in school because they weren't being forced to earn an income.

Harper says the biggest challenge will be convincing other organizations and agencies to make the switch from vouchers and item donations to cash, saying he was "frustrated by the resistance and simple mindedness of some agencies.”

Groups like Mercy Corps, however, are finding success in switching to cash-based assistance. Quartz reported that the Portland, Oregon, charity group has given out nearly 3,000 debit cards, worth $557,448, to refugees in Europe since November.

And Harper told Quartz that nearly 32,000 families in Jordan have received $208 million from his organization so far — about $120 a month per family.

It may seem like a small supplement, but Harper said it can help families cover basic food and living costs, as well as empower them to save money for the future.

Email:; Twitter: @sarapweber


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