Is giving cash a good way to help refugees?

WFP is finding out in Kenya where it has started giving all refugees in Kalobeyei cash to buy their own food

Mar 30, 2020 · 4 min read
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Bartholomew Kavamahanga Rugina was the first to withdraw unrestricted cash from WFP. This is the first time that WFP is giving assistance in the form of unrestricted cash to refugees in Kenya. Photo: WFP/Alessandro Abbonizio

Since the Kalobeyei settlement opened in 2016 in Northern Kenya, nothing has been conventional. Home to 38,000 refugees, Kalobeyei has been the hub for innovative ways of providing assistance.

To start with, the World Food Programme (WFP) has not distributed in-kind food rations in Kalobeyei — save for the nutrient-rich flour given to children and mothers to fend-off malnutrition.

Refugees living here have always received their general food portions in the form of cash transfers dubbed . WFP delivered cash through mobile telephones and refugees would buy food from contracted shops.

But why limit refugees to shopping only in WFP-contracted shops or to using their cash solely for food items?

Testing the waters

WFP started testing unrestricted cash transfers in June 2019 with the pilot covering just over 1,000 families receiving cash through a local bank.

Bartholomew Kavamahanga Rugina, a refugee from Burundi was the very first person to receive WFP’s unrestricted cash in June.

“Before we would travel to Kakuma markets and see food for sale at good prices but we would have no cash,” he says. “Now with this money we can buy food at good prices — you can buy whatever you want for the home.”

Contrary to fears that the families would misappropriate cash, all refugees speaking to WFP say they are spending all of the money on food or on priority needs such as medication for their families.

Rose Ifuko, a refugee from South Sudan involved in the pilot phase says that she cannot spend the cash on luxury items.

“I spent all the money on food,” she says. “I bought maize flour, wheat flour, oil, beans, omena, [small dried fish], split peas, salt, sugar, and onions.”

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Contrary to fears that the families would misappropriate cash, refugees say they are spending all of the money on food. Photo:WFP /Martin Karimi


After more than six months of testing, WFP has now expanded this mode of assistance to cover the whole of Kalobeyei.

Daniel Dyssel, WFP Kenya’s Head of Relief and Refugees Unit, says that this form of assistance gives refugees more options and has the potential of unlocking challenges of financial inclusion for the refugees.

“Refugees receiving unrestricted cash have more power to make decisions over their own lives,” says Daniel. “They can buy anything they want based on priorities, needs and preferences.”

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Uwera Angelque is one of those receiving hard cash for the first time since the expansion. Photo: WFP/Martin Karimi

Uwera Angelque is one of the refugees receiving hard cash for the first time since the expansion.

“I’m excited because with the cash in my hands, I can go to any shop and I can bargain for better prices.”

Uwera says that with (restricted to WFP contracted shopkeepers) she did not have a strong voice.

“I live with my brother,” says Uwera. “With , the shopkeepers would not lower prices — we bought food at higher prices. The traders know that we could only get food from their shops. I’m sure with cash in our hands, we will be better off.”

More power in the hands of refugees

WFP continues giving food assistance to about 360,000 refugees living in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps through both cash transfers and in-kind food distributions.

In both the camps, cash has had demonstrable results in giving the families a chance to expand their diets to include fresh nutritious foods from the local markets.

As WFP expands various cash transfer programmes, it continues promoting technologies that give refugees access to information to further empower them in making decision, such as the Dalili mobile app. Dalili allows customers to compare prices of commodities from different retailers on their smartphones.

See related story

Meanwhile, WFP is running an information campaign educating families on the importance of eating healthy foods. Complimentary projects are supporting the production and safe-handling of fresh produce — including meat and leafy vegetables.

And with WFP’ or unrestricted cash, families have ready access to these highly nutritious foods that will keep disease and malnutrition in check.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

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