Why is cash important?
"It matters because we live in a cash economy, in a global world. Increasingly there is a need for cash transactions. It doesn't have to be cash in hand, but definitely in terms of buying, selling, accessing services like health care and education, and transport to be able to access these services."
Why does it matter in humanitarian work?
"A humanitarian crisis is normally described as something sudden, something volatile, or something chronic where there are physical access issues and security issues. A crisis covers a huge context, which changes from day to day, but most crises have something in common; people are usually cut off from their normal lives.
Most people who suffer in humanitarian situations are going to rely on friends and family to help. But when many people are affected at the same time, that help becomes more difficult because everyone starts running out of food, everyone starts running out of space in their cars to leave the area. So, cash will definitely allow for the wheels to be oiled."
Is cash cheaper?
"We often get asked that question. Cheaper than what? Than doing nothing? Cheaper than in-kind provision? It depends. You will always have to decide what services, what in-kind and what cash do they need. You need to think about all three. For instance with unaccompanied minors, giving them cash is probably not a good idea. They need protection, services and a safe environment.
However, there are situations where families are fleeing because of conflict, or due to a flood or an earth quake, and they are completely cut off from their normally day-to-day lives. Cash allows individual households to be flexible and take responsibility for the choices they make, because not every family is going to eat the same number of meals or sleep in the same place.
At the same time, cash is definitely not the answer to every crisis or every problem affected people have. The best programs I have seen, are the ones that do a combination."
Can you give an example?
"You could have a training programme; maybe a carpentry programme, and you can say that in order for your homes to be more flood resistant, we will teach you some new techniques, so we will pay you to come to our training for a few weeks. That means that we are skilling them up, providing services, but at the same time people can meet their responsibility of feeding their families.
I think the combination of a service, in-kind and cash, is endless. And the better you know your population, the more you can play around with the mix of aid.
In established situations, like a refugee situation, cash is slowly starting to increase the quality of what is being delivered. You are putting power and dignity into chronic situations, and empowering people to make choices and perhaps increase the quality of what they are getting.
Even in places like the Sahel, if you give cash to a rural community, the first thing that happens is the marked traders that sell sorghum and staples, they know there is a marked. So suddenly they bring food to an area that perhaps was waiting for the one-year harvest.
By putting cash in people's hands you can create a different power dynamic, and this allows the most vulnerable to be an actor in normal marked dynamics. The interesting part about cash is that it's not only giving people money, but also the power to spend it."
What has surprised you the most through this work?
"Saving capacity! Even when you have programmes where half of the aid is given as food aid, humanitarians complain when the recipients sell their food. But people in a crisis situation also have to pay their phone bills, and come up with money for other things.
However, if you give people cash, somehow they will save money, because they want to buy three chickens and sell eggs. So they will eat less this week, but with the money they save, they will be able to eat better next week.
While we as humanitarians think mainly of the basic needs on a daily basis, and rarely have longer-term perspectives, people in a crisis have to plan for the rest of their lives."
When should cash not be used?
"Cash should definitely not be used when there are no functioning markets. People must have the possibility to buy the goods and services they are after. So if there has been massive destruction and all markets and stock have been destroyed, a cash injection in the beginning is probably not a good idea.
Also, cash should probably not be used when you are putting vulnerable communities at further risks because there are parties in that area that might come and take the cash. That is a generic problem, so you need to find a safe way of giving it."
Why are some donors sceptical of cash aid?
"There are probably a good number of reasons. One, we like to do what we know how to do. It has taken 50 years to develop our logistics by blind in-kind assistance, so we're not prepared to just let that go. And there's something to be said about the very efficient logistics pipeline system, it is impressive that we can get airdrops of thousands of corrugated iron sheets into Nepal after the earthquake.
Two, a lot of the goods we use for in-kind assistance were made in donor countries and stimulate their economies. So they're reluctant to reduce these profits.
And three, there is ignorance. I think there are humanitarian workers who have not seen the evidence of cash transfer programs in the development programs, and how they are social safety nets helping vulnerable people overcome the step from the lowest vulnerability ladder. I don't think they have done their homework and seen that this is happening in a lot of countries."
What do we know about the use of the money?
"Most people spend it on their basic needs, improving their diets if possible. Here in Jordan, Syrians spend money on fresh fruits and vegetables, which they are used to from back home. And they spend money on transport going to work. Trying to improve their everyday lives. They also spend money on keeping in touch with family and relatives who are still in Syria or elsewhere."
When do you stop giving cash?
"When you know you have done the job. You need to have a target group and a timeline and when you have achieved your goals, you stop.
You also have to have an exit strategy to begin with. Because unlike buckets or education, there will never be an end to how much cash you need because you can always buy something else.
So, it is really important to do a lot of community participation in the beginning, to make people aware that this is not for ever."