Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Cash transfers in a crisis

CBCnews is reporting (h/t @Geoffrey York) that charities are rolling into Dadaab and handing out wads of  cash. While I am not opposed to the idea of cash transfers (I think arguments against them are often thinly veiled versions of 'they're too poor to think for themselves) and I don't necessarily think UNHCR coordination efforts have been as successful as they'd have liked (or liked people to believe), this does not seem like a good idea. The article mentions the risk of some people getting and others not. This recent article illustrates some of the problems with that (at least in a peace-time scenario) and some of the reasons it's more of a problem with cash than with food aid. At the same time, the fact that the delivery happened without incident seems to suggest that they got lucky this time. At least within the camp. At least for now.

But there are other concerns. Where are the refugees spending the money? Are the products they're looking for available locally? Inside the camp? Outside the camp? What is that going to do to local prices? One of the concerns/challenges seems to be that the UN-provided food is not enough for the whole family. If there isn't another ready supply of food nearby, some people getting money and others not is going to result in people selling off their rations to other families. This isn't crazy, irrational behaviour - people who have travelled long distances in a famine situation know that they're going to have to try and rebuild once the white land cruisers leave. Collecting cash or assets is a strategic response. Sometimes people choose to go hungry for a reason. But they're still going hungry. And this means that the food aid that should be preventing malnutrition suddenly isn't. Because of large injections of cash have disrupted a fragile system. Perhaps this isn't a problem and handing out cash will simply enable refugees to supplement UN-provided food by buying at local markets. And if that is the case (which seems doubtful), then everyone should get cash transfers. Because some having and some not is a problem (see above).

At the same time, charities and their supporters often seem to forget - or at least to forget to tell the media - that camps do not exist in isolation. The host country to a refugee situation as large as this, in this case Kenya, takes a huge amount of strain. The ordinary Kenyans on the ground know that. And they're not too well off themselves. They're outside the camps on the premise that they still have their land and they got to stay in their own country. When someone starts rolling into the camps and handing out money, I imagine they'll become a little less tolerant of the situation. Alternatively, they'll see it as a business opportunity to sell up, grab the cash and get out of dodge, causing all sorts of complications later when the chaos has died down and people are trying to figure out who was there in the first place. Increasing the resentment of the local population will not make things easier for those trying to run refugee camps or those seeking shelter in the camps. Especially if you're also pushing up local prices and thereby driving more local people into hunger.

Of course, there are also the other, standard concerns about cash, like the fact that walking around in a chaotic, not particularly secure environment carrying what seems like a fortune to everyone around you - and which they all know you have - dramatically increases personal risk.

These charities and their donors obviously want to help. That's good. That kind of compassion makes available the money that is necessary to help. They clearly also don't trust the current coordination systems to use their money wisely. That's also their prerogative. They shouldn't be excluded on that basis. They should be held accountable, however, for any actions they take that may increase risk for those who have already lost so much to seek shelter in these camps. If they want to hand out the money themselves and they don't think it should be in the form of food, they need wait a couple of months until the refugees are in a position to use the money, until their security will not be threatened by the money, and until a system can be designed to make sure that the handing out of the money does not create more problems.

Wanting to help is good. Thinking that you're entitled to help because you want to is a problem. I like the way Tales From The Hood put it the other day: "The poor”, disaster survivors, “beneficiaries”, etc. are not toys for us to sort of play around with." If the concern of these charities is really more than just feel-good instant gratification for their donors, they should be willing to wait a while, at least to talk with the UNHCR and to consider the impact of their actions on the people they're supposed to be trying to help. 

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