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Investigating alternatives in emergency relief

Civil wars force millions of people to abandon their homes. Wageningen University & Research, in conjunction with international humanitarian organisations, is conducting a study to discover whether money transfers or the provision of goods comprise the best possible form of temporary emergency relief for refugees in conflict areas.

Field research is being conducted for this purpose in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The situation in Congo has been turbulent for many years, particularly in the eastern provinces where insurgent groups are active. Towards the end of September 2016, almost 1.9 million people in these provinces were fleeing from the violence within the borders of their own country. Although people often manage to find shelter with their families, friends or even complete strangers, these persons are often just as poverty-stricken. As refugees generally take little or nothing with them and usually no longer have any noteworthy sources of income, they are primarily dependent on emergency relief. The emergency relief currently provided consists of vouchers that can be used to purchase goods - such as a malaria net or a bucket.

Are vouchers the best way to help refugees?

‘What often happens is that people will sell this bucket - or their voucher for a bucket - to get money for other purposes, such as hospital care or to send a child to the city’, says development economist Maarten Voors. ‘You can ask yourself if simply giving them money would not be just as effective, or perhaps even more efficient. The problem is that we do not know this. We do not know if this will alleviate the vulnerable position these people are in, or if this will be just as effective in preventing disease or death. Neither can we assess the impact on investments in social capital, for example.’

In 2014, the American development economist Jenny Aker concluded from a randomised experiment in Congo that vouchers do not offer refugee households a significant advantage over cash. Cash would therefore be the most cost effective alternative for the relevant organisations as well as the households. However, within a humanitarian framework, comparative studies such as these often fall short. Aker did not investigate any other issues other than what cash-based humanitarian aid is spent on. In a situation like this, what needs to be examined is the impact on health, investments and social capital.

The study, conducted by Voors of Wageningen University & Research, his colleagues at the Université Catholique de Bukavu in Congo and international humanitarian organisations, hopes to provide a little more clarity in this issue. This two-year study compares the effect of the distribution of conventional vouchers to the provision of cash to refugees, and to a situation in which no aid is given at all. What do refugees fleeing from violence within the borders of their own country do with the money or vouchers they are given, and for what do they need these resources most urgently? Voors explains: “We hope that this will clarify the impact of the provision of cash versus vouchers in terms of issues such as food security, social friction, disease and death, and for whom”. This is the first experimental and quantitative study into the effect of cash transfers in conflict areas.

We aim to investigate the impact of humanitarian aid provided in the form of cash transfers.
Maarten Voors, development economist at Wageningen University & Research

In practice, experiments are already taking place regarding giving refugees cash instead of goods. Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation Lilianne Ploumen is also an advocate of the shift within a humanitarian context towards cash transfers. In a Letter to Parliament in which she discusses the Grand Bargain, a negotiation between the 15 largest humanitarian organisations and NGOs and the 15 largest donors, with a view to improving the efficiency, transparency and funding of emergency aid, Ploumen has written the following: ‘Humanitarian organisations and donors should transition towards the provision of cash assistance rather than conventional food packages and material aid. These measures should ensure that additional aid is provided more directly to the affected population and that these persons are better able to determine what aid they need. The dignity of the affected population should be given a more prominent position within the context of humanitarian aid.’ In addition to a more prominent focus on self-reliance among refugees, the Dutch cabinet attaches considerable importance to achieving a better balance between the humanitarian aid provided to refugees and the support given to the municipalities that receive refugees.