A briefing note published by the Irish NGO Goal this month describes the impact of what the aid industry refers to as ‘multi-purpose Money in physical form such as banknotes and coins. and voucher assistance’ on meeting basic needs and supporting food security in North West Syria in the six months July – December 2020.
Without going into details of the programme – which involved ’value vouchers’ as well as direct cash transfers – or the research methodology employed, they found that “Cash is still the most beneficial modality for meeting a diverse range of household needs when a strong market is present.”
Taken at The figure or amount written on the banknote or coin which indicates the amount of its economic value. It is usually written in letters and numbers., this finding seems to be nothing more than a statement of the obvious, up there with the equally unsurprising observation that “cash allows households to utilise their assistance in flexible and cost-saving ways.”
Unpack the report a little further, however, and it becomes clearer what these ‘cost-saving ways’ might be. “When cash, rather than vouchers, was used to buy food,” the report said, “it tended to be more fresh and nutrient dense, than those bought with vouchers.” This, the authors suggested, was “because it is cheaper to buy fresh produce in local informal market stalls (not contracted in the larger program) than larger grocery stores.” Furthermore, when it comes to the purchase of heating fuel, it turns out that kerosene is bought on credit before the onset of winter when prices are low, with the debt then repaid with their ‘winterisation cash support grant’, when prices are high “thereby stretching the value of their assistance.”
These findings support what I myself discovered when evaluating cash and voucher assistance programs for Syrian refugees in Jordan three years earlier: that cash is more flexible, more resilient, and more cost-effective than other forms of financial support in that it allows grant recipients to take opportunistic advantage of volume discounts as they arise – a cart of old cabbages arriving unannounced on a street corner one evening, for example – as well as stimulating multiplier effects within the local informal economy that, over time, more than doubled the purchasing power of the notes involved (a point not mentioned in GOAL’s report).
On their own, these findings might seem of little consequence. But to a Syrian refugee or family displaced by more than 10 years of conflict these subtle differences make the difference between having enough to meet a family’s basic survival needs every month, or not. Between life and death, in other words.