Give refugees cash and dignity, not food and blankets

This past weekend I took my 12-year-old daughter to see Avengers: Age of Ultron. I paid nearly $60 (2,025 baht) for tickets, popcorn, sodas and snacks — it would have cost $120 if my wife and son had joined us. One hundred and twenty dollars for a couple of hours of 3D superhero mayhem. About the price of a pair of sneakers.

But for a family of Syrian refugees in Jordan? That is the difference between having a home and living on the streets, the difference between your kids going to school and having to send them out to work. It's the difference between just about coping and holding the family together, and having to resort to dangerous survival strategies like early marriage, prostitution, even, in extremis, returning to Syria. Can we be surprised that sometimes the knock-on effect of such high-risk decisions leads to the even higher-risk decision that some Syrian families are forced to make, by undertaking the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to seek safety in Europe?

Two days before I took my daughter to the movies, I sat with a Syrian refugee named Hassan, the 75-year-old patriarch of a family of 15. Two years ago, Mr Hassan and his clan uncoiled themselves from their roots near Daara, Syria, and moved to the basement of a dilapidated building in the Jordanian city of Madaba. Like 85% of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Mr Hassan's family chose to live in an urban environment, a setting more familiar to them than the artificial setting of a camp, despite the services provided in camps and despite the fact that urban life for refugees can often prove an undignified, enormously daunting task. Indeed UNHCR estimates that two-thirds of Syrian non-camp refugees live below Jordan's poverty line, one out of six below the abject poverty line. Mr Hassan, a spirited man with a creased but winsome face, told me his family savings have long evaporated. Like the overwhelming majority of Syrians in Jordan, he has no work permit and thus little income with which to pay rent, by far the biggest expense for refugees in Jordan.

"How do you survive?" I wondered aloud, and Mr Hassan pointed to his young daughter-in-law, Fatima, a mother of eight children, whose husband — Mr Hassan's eldest son — was detained in Syria four years ago and has since disappeared without a trace.

Ironically, Ms Fatima's loss is also the family's lifeline, because it qualifies her for UNHCR's cash assistance programme, which targets the most vulnerable Syrian refugees living in Jordanian cities. Through the programme, she monthly receives 120 Jordanian dinars (5,720 baht) that the family uses to help pay rent, buy food and school supplies for Ms Fatima's children. She and her family are one of 21,000 Syrian families who would be likely homeless if not for this innovative and effective programme.

The question of cash vs in-kind donation is an old debate in the humanitarian world. A donor's impulse to send shoes or blankets is an understandable one, but the reality is that all items represent monetary value. Items have a price tag and they often get sold in order to serve a priority need. Cash, I learned through speaking to Mr Hassan and other refugees, gives refugees freedom of choice and restores a sense of dignity, enabling them to make their own decisions to best meet their families' specific needs. It is also a much speedier method of assistance. Unlike items that have to be shipped, received, secured, warehoused and distributed through special centres, a process that can take weeks or even months, cash reaches the intended recipient in a matter of days, if not hours. And there is a huge cost saving with cash too. 

UNHCRs' Lifeline Appeal programme makes a convincing case for direct monetary assistance being far more cost effective than in-kind donations. In Jordan, out of every $100 that UNHCR receives, almost $98 is delivered to the families that need it. That is almost impossible to achieve with in-kind assistance. In Jordan, the cash assistance programme also eliminates the potential for fraud, as it uses no ATM cards or pin codes, which can be lost or stolen. I accompanied Ms Fatima to a nearby bank, where I watched her withdraw cash from an ATM machine that uses state-of-the-art iris scanning biometric technology, ensuring that only she can receive the donated cash. 

Research shows that refugees like Ms Fatima use 98% of cash aid on basic needs, mostly on rent, but also food, health and children's needs. Cash also helps the local economy, and enables refugees to better integrate into their host community. Since it is a less visible form of aid than in-kind assistance, there is less stigma attached to it — no long queues at public distribution centres, no vouchers in supermarkets. It can help lessen some of the tensions created by the strain that has been put on the local economy, infrastructure, and society since the Syrian refugee crisis began.

I asked Mr Hassan how his family would cope without the monthly cash aid. He smiled, then sighed, as if from a deep well of weariness. "Well, God is here," he said.

That was answer enough for me.


Khaled Hosseini is Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the author of The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Mountains Echoed. For more info on Khaled's visit to Jordan see www.unhcr.org/khaledhosseini. For more info on UNHCR's cash aid programme please visit: www.unhcr.org/lifeline. To donate to the UNHCR cash assistance programme, see www.unhcr.or.th.

About the author

Writer: Khaled Hosseini