What happens when you give people money (rather than food or blankets) after a natural disaster? Some evidence from Zambia

March 11, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

When disaster strikes in the shape of floods or droughts, aid agencies traditionally ship in food and blankets, often over great distances. But increasingly, people are trying out a novel alternative – give people envelopes full of cash and let them buy what they need. I’ve just been reading an evaluation of two such exercises in response to floods in Western Zambia in 2007, by Oxfam GB and Concern Worldwide. Concern distributed money to 1,700 households in the immediate aftermath of the floods, while Oxfam waited a couple of months and then helped 2,100 households to rebuild. What happened?

In the early intervention by Concern, people spent a bit under half the cash on food, a third of the money replacing blankets, clothes and cooking equipment, and more than half the households bought fishing nets so they could start earning again. Most households kept some money back to spend later. In the later Oxfam intervention, 80% of the cash went on food, mainly staples such as maize and cassava.

Overall, what was striking was the variety of things people bought (see chart). Cash transfers provide people with a level of flexibility that no centrally planned distribution could ever match. Even in very remote places, such as Western Province, people will find ways to make the most efficient use of the cash they receive to purchase the goods their families most need, for example by joining together to hire transport to the nearest functioning market.

But you can’t just march in and start handing out money. Both Oxfam and Concern engaged with local structures and traditional leaders as well as verifying every single beneficiary family in order to ensure that distributions were targeted at the right groups. Generally in humanitarian interventions, targeting is difficult, but in the case of cash higher levels of sensitisation and staff involvement are required to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts over who gets what, and that needs to be budgeted for.

Income in Zambia is traditionally men’s domain and food women’s and is one of the rationales for giving food in emergency situations (directly into the hands of women). Using cash would thus appear to bypass women in favour of men, but by including a strong sensitisation effort (e.g. t-shirts, radio spots and drama groups) alongside the cash distribution, the interventions were quite successful in reversing normal gender roles around who is responsible for making decisions on the use of cash. In the end, in both projects, decision-making was made by women or in some 90% of cases by women and men jointly.

Actively challenging household power relations in this case (rather than simply giving food to avoid provoking gender related ‘issues’) appeared to have a beneficial impact as women reported being happy to be more involved in household decisions and told the evaluator that they had gained knowledge about money.

Both projects used local banks to pack the cash into envelopes, get it to the distribution site (including security arrangements) and manage the distribution of the cash at the site. This was found to be relatively efficient and cost effective, but there were some problems. For example, in the Oxfam GB project, reports of robberies in the area made the bank nervous and so the number of pay points was significantly reduced from the original plan, which meant beneficiaries had to walk long distances and wait long periods of time to receive their cash.

The Oxfam project made a concerted effort to ensure that people’s own voices were heard. The main complaint mechanism was a series of suggestion boxes on the payment days, where community members could put in anonymous notes. This allowed the project team to find out about the problems with the targeting and registration process and in the case of one area the complaints resulted in a full re-targeting exercise.

Overall, the exercise was highly cost effective: in the Concern Worldwide project, 73% of the total project costs went directly to the beneficiaries. The other 27% included all costs associated with the registration, payment of cash, gender and HIV sensitisation, monitoring, staff costs and administration. The evaluators judged the exercise ‘significantly more cost effective than a response which attempted to provide the range of relief items which were actually purchased by beneficiaries with the cash.’

Oh and in case you were wondering, less than 0.5% of the cash was spent on ‘unproductive items’, a.k.a. beer for the men.