Eleven-year-old Fares was finally able to focus his energy on school and playing.
Between October 2020 and August 2021, his family was selected to receive cash assistance. His father stopped sending him out to work and he could even afford to attend catch-up classes at a local educational centre.
Fares’s father, Daifallah, says the grant made a big difference to his eldest son: “He was not working. He was only interested in his studies, and went to the educational centre. But now I cannot [send him anymore] and you can see the difference between his grades last year and this year.”
Cash assistance makes a difference
Daifallah and his family were one of 1,499 refugee households in the Gaza Strip that received nine monthly transfers of 1,196 shekels (€340), starting in October 2020 and ending in August 2021.
"You can see the difference between his grades last year and this year."
The multi-purpose cash assistance was distributed by the Gaza Protection Consortium, a joint partnership between the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Mercy Corps (MC) and Humanity & Inclusion (HI), supported by EU Humanitarian Aid. The families were selected on the basis of vulnerability and comprised some 9,600 individuals in total.
“During the grant period, my children were in excellent psychological condition. They used to go to play with the children in the street,” says Daifallah.
Over half the population lives in poverty
The dire economic situation in the Gaza Strip is a direct result of decades of living under Israeli occupation and nearly 15 years under siege by Israel and Egypt.
Numerous rounds of armed conflict between Palestinian armed groups and the Israeli military have destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, and devastated critical infrastructure. Electricity is only available for an average of 12 hours per day, and drinking water and sewage treatment plants are often offline.
Severe Israeli restrictions on free movement and both internal and international trade have hindered economic development.
The unemployment rate in Gaza was 47 per cent in 2021, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS). The World Bank estimates the poverty rate at 59.3 per cent in 2021. In 2022, the Humanitarian Country Team in Palestine estimates that approximately 1.3 million people in Gaza – around 63 per cent of the population – will require some sort of humanitarian assistance.
Children are in particular need of protection and assistance in Gaza, where over 40 per cent of the population is under the age of 15.
The human cost of poverty
In August and September 2020, the Gaza Protection Consortium surveyed 2,241 refugee families, representing more than 14,300 people, across Gaza.
All the families selected to take part in the survey were living in “deep poverty” – i.e. on an income of less than 1,974 shekels (€561) per month. The lack of employment opportunities in Gaza had driven roughly 90 per cent of the surveyed families to accumulate significant and unsustainable debt.
"Many children in the area where we live make fun of my children because we are poor, so we are isolated from people."
The psychological price paid by children living in abject poverty is often overlooked.
Not having lunch money can affect a child’s ability to learn at school. Not having decent clothes can affect their motivation to attend school. And the bullying and harassment that often accompanies living in extreme poverty and debt can have myriad negative psychological effects.
“My children and I spend most of our time at home so that no-one bullies them. Many children in the area where we live make fun of my children because we are poor, so we are isolated from people,” Daifallah says.
Among the households surveyed, 22 per cent said their children faced challenges at home or at school on a regular basis. These ranged from being exposed to domestic violence, to neglect, violence at school, and behavioural disorders.
Of the 2 per cent of households that reported their children had dropped out of school, half of the respondents said it was due to economic constraints – they could not afford uniforms, equipment and other materials.
More than 3,700 out of 413,691 children between the ages of 10 and 17 are engaged in full-time labour in Gaza, according to the PCBS. A further 800 in the same age group work while attending school. No data exists for the number of children under the age of 10 engaged in child labour.
Following the end of the grant period, Fares has gone back to work to support his family. Every evening after school, he earns money by giving younger children rides on an elaborately decorated toy car that he and his father built together.
“Fares is currently working. This has affected his studies greatly and his academic level has decreased,” Daifallah adds. “Sometimes he comes home at 11 at night, sometimes I go to be near him so I can make sure no-one is harassing him. I wait for him to finish and we go home together.”
The families selected to receive cash assistance said they spent an average of 11 per cent of their income on education for their children, according to the survey.
A third of families said that before the cash assistance, they were unable to meet their children’s basic education needs.
In the age of the Covid-19 pandemic, those basic needs can be more expensive than ever before.
“My Choice”: a new kind of cash assistance programme
One of the unique aspects of the Gaza Protection Consortium’s cash assistance programme is that the assistance is unconditional. This means that the selected families have the freedom and dignity to choose how to spend the money, using a debit card at any retailer or cash machine. To reflect this flexibility, the programme was named “My Choice”.
Studies in several countries have found that cash-based assistance provides the most effective and efficient way to meet the needs of vulnerable people. The Consortium’s survey in 2020 revealed that 83 per cent of families preferred cash to other forms of support.
In November 2021, the Consortium conducted another survey. This time they surveyed 399 out of the 1,499 families who qualified for the programme. Of those families, 80 per cent said the cash grants increased their children’s self-confidence and participation in school because their basic needs were being met.
One-quarter of participants said they used the cash to provide healthier meals, 22 per cent bought their children new clothes, and nearly 10 per cent, like Fares’s family, provided their children with private tutoring.
Smartphones for distance learning
Ahmad’s family was also selected to take part in the “My Choice” programme. One of the most important things Ahmad did with the cash he received was to buy his children a smartphone so they could take part in distance learning during the many lockdowns of the past two years.
“One of my sons asked for a bicycle and the other asked for clothes, and I also bought them a phone … so that my children could communicate with the school and follow their lessons,” says Ahmad.
“I bought them clothes, pants and shoes, which my sons did not have for example,” Ahmad says of the various ways he used the grant money for his children. “I enrolled my two daughters in private lessons for four months and this had a positive effect on school, and their grades improved.”
Over two-thirds of families said that being able to meet their basic needs had a positive impact on their home environment. This was reflected in the psychological wellbeing of the children, their sense of safety, and their emotional balance.
For some households, however, the money went to the most urgent needs.
“I enrolled my two daughters in private lessons for four months and this had a positive effect on school, and their grades improved.”
Cash support in an emergency
Before Nisreen, a 39-year-old single mother of four, began receiving cash assistance through the “My Choice” programme, she often resorted to selling her food vouchers from UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestine refugees) to repay debts and cover rent.
“We did not have gas, a heater, or a battery to light up the house, so we went to sleep when the sun went down because we did not have any light in the house,” says Nisreen.
Nisreen’s apartment was damaged during the intense hostilities in May 2021 between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. As a result, she and her children were selected to receive post-emergency assistance from the Gaza Protection Consortium.
They were one of 4,720 households chosen to receive three monthly transfers of 878 shekels (€250), starting in October 2021. EU Humanitarian Aid supported 1,875 of these families, with the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) covering the remainder. The UK extended its support to cover three additional monthly instalments of 1,046 shekels (€297) to 2,190 of these families.
“I live for my children”
With the first cash grant she received, Nisreen paid her rent and managed to get her home’s water and electricity reconnected.
“I paid some debts and paid the fees for my son to attend an educational centre so that he could learn English. The money covered his transportation. With the rest, I bought notebooks and pens for his studies. All that was left after I paid the rent was 350 shekels [€100], but I covered what my children needed to study,” she says.
"I want to give them everything I have."
Since that first month, she has been able to repair some of the damage to her home, buy gas for cooking, provide her children with breakfast each day, and give them lunch money for school. She, too, was able to purchase her children a pre-paid phone so they could study remotely during Covid-related school closures.
“I live for my children. I want to give them everything I have. Currently, I can provide one shekel [€0.29] per day for each child,” she says.
Sustainable solutions are needed
Between October 2020 and December 2021, EU Humanitarian Aid provided a lifeline to 4,841 of the most vulnerable households in Gaza affected by deep poverty and/or emergencies.
Its multi-purpose cash assistance also boosts the local economy by stimulating demand for goods and services. A study commissioned by UNRWA in 2018 reported a significant multiplier effect, with each US dollar spent by cash aid recipients generating US$2.44 in GDP for the Gaza economy.
The geographic and political divisions between the West Bank and Gaza, however, have contributed to barely functioning state social services, leaving the most vulnerable residents without a social or economic safety net. While cash assistance is able to help families at least partially break their debt cycles and improve their living situations, it must be complemented by more durable development and social programmes.
According to the World Bank, a sustained economic recovery in Gaza requires
- access to regional and global trade markets
- the ability to use commercial crossings and develop trade links with both Israel and the West Bank
- effective governance and stronger institutions
For those reasons and more, the only sustainable solution for the vulnerable population in Gaza is a political resolution that lifts the siege and allows for meaningful economic and social development to take place.
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