The use of cash and voucher assistance for protection outcomes in humanitarian assistance

[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The majority of MCC’s humanitarian assistance programming over the past century has involved the distribution of food and non-food items. However, over the past decade the distribution of cash and voucher assistance (CVA) has become one of the fastest growing types of humanitarian interventions, including within MCC. While CVA has become well-established within MCC and across the humanitarian sector as a tool for improving food security, providing for basic needs and strengthening social safety nets in shock-prone areas around the world, the impact of CVA programs is still being assessed by MCC and other humanitarian actors. This article discusses the promising impact of CVA on protection programming, examining how CVA has the potential not only to improve food and economic security for uprooted and marginalized families, but can also help protect vulnerable groups (such as women, girls and boys) from different types of violence stoked by desperate economic conditions.

Prior to implementing cash and voucher assistance in any context, one must undertake a comprehensive gender analysis to understand the potential impact cash may have on community and household dynamics and on individual safety, particularly for vulnerable groups in that context. In some instances, distributing cash may increase pre-existing vulnerabilities (e.g., contexts in which men in a family control cash resources), leading to negative protection outcomes and placing individuals at higher risk of experiencing harm. In all humanitarian settings, an analysis of pre-crisis gender relations should be included in the gender analysis to gain a better understanding of how expectations around roles and responsibilities would function under normal circumstances and how those roles have shifted in crisis situations. The gender analysis should consult local women, men, girls, boys and other vulnerable groups in order to better inform the planned programming and challenge pre-existing ideas of gender relations and preferred programming that project staff may have. It is particularly important not to assume that gender-based targeting is the ideal strategy in all contexts; in some instances, this type of targeting may reinforce traditional gender norms or place women and girls at increased risk of gender-based violence (GBV).

Providing a one-time cash transfer on an individual or household basis depending on need can allow households to cover key expenses that may otherwise put vulnerable individuals at greater risk of harm in high stress situations.

While the primary use of cash and vouchers in assistance programming often seeks to meet basic household needs (such as rental assistance, household items and food assistance), there are secondary outcomes related to gender equity and protection that can be linked back to the implementation of cash-based assistance. In a recent evaluation of MCC’s voucher assistance programming in Lebanon, many women participating in the monthly food voucher program noted that the voucher had not only had a direct impact on the amount and quality of food their families were consuming, but that there was also an impact on their feeling of self-worth within the family. Participation in the voucher program meant for these women that they were able to contribute something substantial to the household’s purchasing power, including the ability to choose and purchase food, and that stress levels in the household declined due to the knowledge that predictable monthly vouchers would be available to cover their food needs. While not explicitly linked to reduction of GBV, it is a justifiable assumption that reduced stress levels within the household can contribute to reduced tension and violence.

Other responses undertaken by other agencies, such as International Rescue Committee (IRC), include: providing cash assistance to displaced individuals; helping to replace lost documents in order to gain access to government and NGO services; and providing unconditional cash transfers to adolescent girls with the goal of reducing early marriage, unsafe working conditions and exposure to transactional sex. An emerging use for cash assistance for protection is the use of cash to support a survivor-centered response to GBV. In this type of response, cash is used as part of a broader GBV response programme, in which survivors are provided with psychosocial support as well as cash assistance in order to help survivors access core response services such as safe housing, medical care and livelihoods training that would otherwise be inaccessible due to unaffordable costs or limited financial resources.

In sudden-onset emergencies, cash programming can be used to provide families with short-term cash transfers to promote early recovery and address issues related to protection risks, or issues that will leave individuals more vulnerable to protection risks down the line. In these responses, cash and voucher programing can be used for non-reoccurring expenses, such as replacing roofing material or covering urgent medical needs. Providing a onetime cash transfer on an individual or household basis depending on need can allow households to cover key expenses that may otherwise put vulnerable individuals at greater risk of harm in high stress situations.

Syrian refugee Ahmad* buys groceries with vouchers provided through an MCC project in Beirut, Lebanon in 2014. MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) distributed the vouchers to Syrians living in Lebanon, to help relieve the burden on host communities and reduce tension between hosts and refugees. (MCC photo/Silas Crews)

*Full name not used for security reasons.

In a recent study carried out by the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP), researchers found that cash and voucher programming had a positive impact on reducing intimate partner violence in 80% of projects surveyed when programmed in conjunction with other GBV activities addressing root causes of violent behavior. Cash assistance was found to reduce tensions within the household related to income insecurity. This type of assistance was also found to delay or prevent early and forced marriage in acute situations where cash was able to alleviate family desperation. However, cash alone was not able to change the underlying beliefs that lead to early or forced marriage, highlighting the need for cash programming to be integrated into a more comprehensive approach to protection.

As cash and voucher assistance programming has become recognized as a growing component of humanitarian response programming, it is important to assess the impact of this assistance in order to achieve optimal results. The use of cash and voucher assistance in protection programming is still an emerging area of programming and research that shows a good deal of promise in providing survivors of GBV and vulnerable populations with additional resources and tangible outcomes around safety and protection in humanitarian assistance programming.

Annie Loewen is an MCC humanitarian assistance coordinator based in Winnipeg.

Cross, Allyson; Tenzin Manell and Melanie Megevand. November 2018. Humanitarian Cash Transfer Programming and Gender-Based Violence Outcomes: Evidence and Future Research Priorities. Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP). Available at

Allen, Samantha. May 2019. “CVA for Protection: A Mapping of IRC’s Use of Cash and Voucher Assistance to Help Achieve Protection Outcomes.” May 2019.

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