The cash-based transfer is a form of food assistance that has been supported by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations since the early 2010s. In contrast to in-kind food assistance, which feeds hungry individuals by way of donations of food, cash-based transfers consist of physical money, debit cards and vouchers distributed to those in need and allow people freedom in selecting their food.

Cash-based transfers are both practical and empowering. Individuals that receive aid of any kind are often viewed as passive recipients. However, the program recognizes that people that receive aid know their nutritional needs best and deserve the agency to choose their own food.

The cash-based transfer is also a more sustainable aid program when compared to in-kind food assistance. The money provided through aid goes into local economies and provides support for a future in which hungry individuals will be able to obtain food from their communities. For example, $1.29 billion USD were introduced into Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey by WFP to revitalize those economies in the wake of the Syrian conflict.

Users of cash-based transfers can redeem them in stores connected to WFP and related U.N. agencies. This allows WFP to track what is bought and informs their future decisions concerning what foods they stock in their stores and what amounts of money are appropriate for cash-based transfers. The program is sustainable in its implementation on the ground and through the feedback that it provides to WFP.

However, the cash-based transfer is not always the most effective form of food assistance. It is inappropriate in areas with severely disrupted markets or untrustworthy banks and is too dependent on the structure to function in times of crisis, such as in the event of a tsunami, during which time direct donations of food are necessary for basic survival. WFP contends that it evaluates areas in need case-by-case and determines what combination of in-kind and cash-based transfer aid is appropriate. One variation on the cash-based transfer allows access to this type of aid conditionally— for instance, if a family’s children stay in school, they receive cash-based transfers. Other cash-based transfers only allow for the purchase of specific items.

It is important to note that cash-based transfers currently comprise less than 10 percent of overall global humanitarian aid. U.S. in-kind aid programs such as the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program and Food for Progress are established and have succeeded in feeding billions of people all over the globe. However, the humanitarian nature and sustainability of cash-based transfers will likely continue to appeal to different governments as they search for long-term solutions to world hunger.

Caroline Meyers

Photo: Flickr