On World Food Day, 5 reasons why cash transfers aren’t always the best option

October 14, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Since the Asian Tsunami of 2004, providing cash to people in an emergency has become increasingly mainstream. larissa-pelham-picBut (babies, bath water) there is more to food response than ‘just give them the money.’ On World Food Day, Oxfam Social Protection Adviser Larissa Pelham sets out the case:

The King asked The Queen, and The Queen asked The Dairymaid: “Could we have some butter for The Royal slice of bread?”

pelham-1The Dairymaid She curtsied, And went and told The Alderney: “Don’t forget the butter for The Royal slice of bread.”

The Alderney Said sleepily: “You’d better tell His Majesty That many people nowadays Like marmalade Instead.

Children’s writer AA Milne manages to muse cheerfully on most of life’s trials and tribulations in his writing and he’s hit the nail on the head again with this one. We’ve become so incredibly partial to ‘marmalade’ – cash – to help people access food in a crisis these days, that suggesting alternatives in response to recent emergencies can face push back even from within our own organisations.

Here are five reasons why cash isn’t a panacea.

Sometimes food is what people need and it can be ‘market friendly’, last week’s Hurricane Matthew which has affected 1.4 million people, being a poignant example. Homes, store cupboards and cooking equipment are buried, roads to markets are inaccessible and where Oxfam is working, there are initial reports of near total destruction of crops and livestock. People need a good meal inside them now so they can keep going. So Oxfam is trying to set up local kitchens to provide warm meals to people run by female ‘restauratrices’, this provides food, helps the labour market to recover and targets women. It’s simple, basic and essential.

The markets for households to purchase food aren’t always there, and don’t always bounce back as quickly as we

Undernourishment, 1990-2015 (source: FAO)

Undernourishment, 1990-2015 (source: FAO)

think/hope: Our own aid practices might have stifled them entirely, government policies and politicking may be silencing them, the lack of other vital markets like transport and fuel availability can be a hindrance or it can be too risky for traders to operate, particularly in conflict settings, as the ongoing crisis in South Sudan shows. And even if they are there, that ‘invisible hand’ is not always benign for the poorest purchasers: in the Malawi crisis back in 2002 traders hoarded to artificially inflate prices.

Unsurprisingly, cash alone isn’t enough. Long term social protection programmes (i.e. welfare, for those that don’t think that’s a dirty word) in developing contexts, recognised this a number of years ago. It’s what you do with your cash – and some people are better at using their cash than others. And so they decided on ‘’cash plus’. Give people cash plus a few other things besides such as training in different skills to improve their job opportunities, or seeds and tools or business planning and then they can really ‘maximise’ what they do with the cash. Well established programmes such as Ethiopia’s Food Security Programme have been doing this for years, combining a safety net with building household assets. The humanitarian sector is just catching up with this. And as OPM’s research is exploring, we humanitarians must get better at using existing schemes, rather than building costly, unsustainable systems from scratch.

And of course, prevention is better than cure – we all know that but the humanitarian sector is the most stubborn of leopards. We should be acting early with a range of appropriate interventions instead of distributing cash to resolve the problem afterwards. This doesn’t fit with donors’ planning processes, the competing demands for media attention, or the public’s responsiveness to pictures of utter destitution, but that’s where the re-focus needs to happen, so that we have the resources to avert crises in the first place.

pelham-3And finally, like the King’s desire for butter, there’s no accounting for taste, whatever the current trend. We’re not all utility maximisers in a neat economics equation. We’re all different and not necessarily predictable. It’s what happens around the family dinner table, or underneath the makeshift tarpaulin, well behind closed ‘doors’, that is what really matters about individuals’ consumption. And that’s something we need to find out. Maybe too, some people just prefer food – particularly women: they can have more control over food and there can be less risk of abuse or assault than with cash although evidence to date is inconclusive. This means that marmalade isn’t necessarily best for us, or what we all want all of the time.

Sometimes a little bit of butter is OK.

The Queen took The butter And brought it to His Majesty; The King said, “Butter, eh?” And bounced out of bed.
“Nobody,” he said, As he kissed her Tenderly, “Nobody,” he said, As he slid down the banisters,
“Nobody, My darling, Could call me A fussy man – BUT I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!”