The popular image of humanitarian aid in public consciousness is of trucks loaded with essential foods being handed out to refugees. But increasingly, humanitarian organizations have been turning away from transporting bags of commodities to crisis areas, and are instead focusing on giving refugees the means to buy their own food.
The UK-based Overseas Development Institute estimates that cash and vouchers now account for around 6% of total humanitarian spending, up from less than 1% in 2004. That is still a small amount but the United Nations World Food Program says cash now accounts for just over a quarter of its assistance.
Cash and vouchers are particularly popular in urban areas and have been extensively used to support Syrian refugees. That often means vouchers that can be used at supermarkets or even cash wired directly to those in need.
Aside from the dignity and choice that cash and vouchers offer, they are also seen as a more effective method of supporting the local economy. Traditional in-kind assistance – like soap, blankets, rice – is often sold by refugees below market price, to get something they need more. Cash allows them to keep the full value of the support they receive, and to prioritize according to their needs.
Vouchers are also popular with the donor community because it is easier to track and trace their use.