World Food Day: moving from food assistance to cash, to address humanitarian need

Charlie Mason, Humanitarian Advisor, DFID Sudan

As a Humanitarian Adviser for DFID in Sudan, I recently visited one of the camps housing people displaced by the conflict in Darfur in 2004. While the international community has provided life-saving assistance to more than two million people for all of these years, it was striking how little has changed in terms of the assistance provided, and with many people still dependent on aid to survive.

In most humanitarian crises, and Darfur is no exception, surplus food is imported from other countries to feed people in dire need. But this approach can also bring negative side-effects. Food prices are kept artificially low by the imports and distribution of free food, reducing opportunities for the local farming economy to develop. People receiving support aren’t able to choose what they receive, reducing their chance to take decisions that could positively affect their futures and sometimes leading them to sell some of the food they receive to pay for other essential costs. A considerable part of the money that could be used to support people is used to pay for food to be transported from one side of the globe to the other.

So in recent months, DFID has worked with our partners including the World Food Programme to establish a programme to transfer cash to recipients instead of food. This involves giving people who would normally receive food aid — which in Sudan includes refugees from South Sudan as well as people displaced from their homes by issues such as conflict or lack of food — approximately £5 per person per month. They supplement this through work, and can use the money to meet some of their basic needs, for example through buying food, or paying medical expenses or school fees for their children. This boosts the local economy; gives people back the right to choose how they support themselves and their families; and allows us to spend our money more effectively and therefore use more of our aid funds to help the people who really need the support. It was really impressive to see how advanced this system has become in just a short time, with people using bank cards to access their money and the shops using special card readers to deduct balance in exchange for goods from their shops.

The people I talked to were at first afraid that this would spell disaster for them and that they would have nothing to eat. They now see that the market has responded and in fact they have a much wider range of goods to buy at a good price, and can even use the money for medical bills or other basic needs should they choose to. This approach has also restored some dignity to them, and after so many years of suffering, that basic humanity is what World Food Day is all about.