The world is experiencing the highest levels of forced migration on record. Conflict, natural disasters, and other emergencies have driven more than 70 million people from their homes, about 26 million of whom have become refugees. They often endure long and treacherous journeys, after which they have to figure out how to rebuild their lives. Fortunately, there are ways to help these refugees and the local economy where they now live.
In these times of political division and disagreement, some will no doubt question whether humanitarian assistance can truly be effective. But there is strong evidence that innovative and flexible approaches to humanitarian assistance can make a major difference in an efficient, cost-effective way.
The delivery of cash assistance is one such approach, and it has already proved invaluable to Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In particular, Turkey’s Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) has enabled some 1.6 million refugees not only to meet their own essential needs, but also to participate in the local economy.
Unique in terms of scale, approach, and impact, the ESSN was launched in late 2016 by the European Union (EU) and the Government of Turkey, and has been implemented by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) together with the Turkish Red Crescent. It provides eligible refugee families with a debit card, which is loaded each month with 120 Turkish liras ($21) per family member, in addition to a quarterly top-up depending on family size. According to WFP research, refugees typically spend the money on rent, electricity, food, and health.
Since the program was launched, the number of beneficiaries withdrawing their children from school has dropped by more than 50%, and the number of beneficiary parents who report having to forego food to ensure their children have enough has dropped by 45%. More fundamentally, as the WFP’s #IncredibleOrdinary campaign has shown, empowering refugees to make everyday decisions – from what to eat to how to get to work – for themselves, rather than imposing those decisions on them, restores a sense of freedom, dignity, and identity to people who have lost everything.
The good news is that support for helping refugees – and for using these types of programs – is strong. At a recent donors’ conference co-chaired by the UN and the European Union, more than 50 countries pledged to provide a record $6.97 billion to support millions of Syrians in need, both inside and outside the country.
The ESSN, funded entirely by the EU, is a testament to Europe’s commitment not just to helping refugees, but also to supporting the Turkish government and society, which have shown exceptional hospitality to the 3.6 million Syrians currently living in their country. In total, Turkey hosts around 4 million refugees – far more than any other country in the world. This has placed severe strain on public services and other local resources.
By enabling refugees to secure housing, eat a more diverse diet, and keep their children in school, the ESSN has helped to ease that strain. Moreover, by making refugees active consumers, it has provided a major boost to Turkey’s economy, amounting to more than $1 billion over two and a half years.
The ESSN is hardly the first cash-assistance program to have such a significant impact. Over the last decade, the success of these programs has encouraged their continued adaptation and expansion. In 2009, WFP cash-assistance programs delivered some $10 million in ten countries. By 2018, $1.76 billion was being delivered in 62 countries.
To be sure, cash assistance is not a panacea. Other initiatives – including food-distribution and nutrition-assistance programs – are also needed to protect people trapped in conflict-affected areas or in the aftermath of natural disasters. But in places where markets are developed enough to offer the required goods and services – such as the cities where refugees increasingly find themselves – cash assistance can be truly life changing.
Refugees deserve the chance to rebuild their lives with dignity and autonomy. Cash-assistance programs give them that chance.
(David Beasley is Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme.)