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The use of cash in emergency and post-emergency non-food item programs -a case study from the Democratic Republic of Congo

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The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance/Sarah Bailey - June 25, 2007

Introduction: The framework for Cash & Voucher interventions

The appropriateness of cash and voucher-based interventions has become an increasingly discussed topic in the field of humanitarian assistance. Practitioners conventionally support the direct distribution of food, non-food, and agricultural commodities to meet the immediate emergency and recovery needs of households and communities impacted by natural or man-made disasters. The direct distribution methodology aims to assist beneficiaries with the necessary items to survive and recover from a crisis.

Cash and voucher approaches, through which needy households can gain access to household items or food stuffs to improve household welfare, have long been popular in Europe and the United States. Examples from the United States include food stamps and rent subsidies for the poor or dollar-denominated credit cards as were issued to victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the developing world, cash and vouchers have sometimes been used to promote household access to seed, non-food items, food, and labor.

The direct distribution approach often cannot accommodate the unique needs of a recipient household. This limitation of direct distributions often leads recipients to sell or trade certain items in order to acquire items of greater value to the household. When trade or sale is not feasible, beneficiaries of direct distributions may keep and use the articles received but not derive the same utility that trade would engender. When items are sold, the transaction tends to occur under unfavorable terms of trade for the seller, with the resulting sale price below the local market price and often below even the procurement price for the item.

The common practice of beneficiaries trading or selling direct distributed assistance such as food or non-food items may give the impression that assistance is unnecessary, when in fact it is the 'type of assistance' that is not appropriate to the situation.

Direct distributions, particularly where procured commodities are from countries and regions outside of the area being assisted, can create market distortions and negatively impact recovering economies by discouraging local supply.

The principle argument for voucher and cash-based interventions is that beneficiaries can access the goods and services, if available, responding to their individual and household priorities while also supporting economic recovery by making purchases locally and in the process stimulating and supporting local markets.

Voucher and cash interventions present their own potential negative externalities.[1] Cash interventions could potentially create local inflation, to the disadvantage of non-beneficiaries to the voucher or cash schemes. The use of cash can also present security risks for beneficiaries and staff. Beneficiaries might not use the money in optimal ways to maximize a household's welfare. However, after an extensive review of cash and voucher activities, Oxfam found that fears about local inflation, purchasing of non-essential commodities, and security risks are generally not realized in practice or that the risks are no greater than those inherent with in-kind distributions.[2]

A final concern about cash and vouchers involves gender and intra-household control of resources. As heads of households usually control productive resources such as cash,[3] and women are more likely to have control over food resources,[4] cash-based activities could potentially disadvantage women. This points to the importance of gender biasing interventions to ensure that women are empowered to make decisions relative to household allocation of resources. Gender biasing is based on the hypothesis that men tend to make decisions without spousal consent within a household and that when women are empowered with choice, male decision making is less oriented than their female counterparts towards maximizing household welfare.[5]

Evidence from voucher-based interventions in Central Africa indicates a tendency for men to increasingly take interest and control of the use of vouchers. During the course of three successive voucher interventions in a single community over a 13 month period, where there were no changes in the selection criteria of households chosen to receive vouchers, the percentage of vouchers that were utilized by men at the point of trade increased. During the first voucher intervention in the community, voucher users were equally split between women and men. By the third voucher intervention 13 months later men accounted for 68% of voucher users.[6] Somewhat in contrast, Oxfam found that designating women as recipients of cash or vouchers actually increased their decision-making authority within the household by increasing their share of income.[7]

Agency, Country, and Project Context of the intervention

Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the overseas relief and development agency of the United States Catholic Community, has a 60 year history of responding to emergencies in developing countries. While historically CRS's emergency interventions have tended to be direct distributions (food, seed, and non-food items), over the past ten years the agency has developed an institutional capacity with using vouchers. CRS's voucher work is primarily in seed, Seed Vouchers & Fairs,[8] which have been employed in over 25 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. CRS voucher experience includes the use of voucher to access non-food items in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Indonesia as well as the use of labor vouchers in Uganda and Ethiopia.

The CRS program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) piloted the use of vouchers to promote access to seed in DRC starting in 2004 through training and support to a number of local partners. The experience with Seed Vouchers & Fairs prompted CRS and local partners to expand the use of this approach. By early 2005, CRS Congo had submitted emergency response proposals to the Gates Foundation, UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund), and OCHA (United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) to provide humanitarian assistance in Eastern DRC with a focus on a complex emergency in Katanga Province. CRS Congo's proposals to both donors included programming requests to fund emergency seed and non-food item support to vulnerable households and to use, where appropriate, voucher approaches.[9]

CRS Congo, in partnership with local partner Caritas Kindu, implemented a post-emergency livelihood project in Maniema Province, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, from January 2004 until April 2006. The project addressed seed, infrastructure, and non-food item needs through Seed Voucher & Fairs, cash for work to support road rehabilitation, and non-food item (NFI) distributions of pre-packaged UNICEF household kits.

The UNICEF kits contain two metal cooking pots, four hard plastic plates, four cups, eating utensils, one plastic sheet, two blankets, a hard sided 20 liter jerry can, and 500 grams of soap. CRS's program in Kindu supplemented these kits with agricultural tools and used clothing. While monitoring and evaluation has shown that beneficiaries consider these items useful and are still using them three months after their distribution, neither M&E nor initial needs assessment evaluations can determine the value that households place on certain items or the extent to which these items would have been procured by recipients if they had been given choice and access to a wide variety of items.

Maniema's population experienced massive displacement during the two wars that took place in Congo between 1998 and 2003. Sexual violence and indiscriminate killing of civilians was rampant. Household looting and pillaging was widespread. Since 2003, relative stability has prevailed in the province and families have returned to their farms and villages. Most returnee families had the additional challenge of re-establishing their livelihoods in the face of destroyed and looted houses.

CRS distributed NFI kits more than two years after fighting had ceased because evaluations indicated that a high need for non-food items still existed at the end of the first phase of programming in 2005. CRS therefore continued with NFI kits activities in 2005 and 2006, targeting more isolated areas not reached by the initial activities.

Objectives of the Study

In order evaluate the appropriateness of its NFI activities and illuminate the advantages and potential pitfalls of using cash and voucher interventions to meet the non-food needs of Congolese households recovering from the effects of war and displacement, CRS Congo used private funds to carry out a pilot 'cash for household non-food needs' program in Maniema Province, DRC in April 2006. The pilot involved 40 households and took place over a four week period from the time that households were selected until the day that they made their purchases. Households were provided clear guidelines as to what could and could not be purchased with the cash, and they only had one market day in order to purchase the items. Cash recipients were selected through a lottery of a sub-group that self-selected for participation in the study. The time limitation, purchasing rules, and selection process were used to facilitate research and provide a direct comparison with the on-going NFI activities while also not disadvantaging beneficiaries, and would be modified in a true cash and voucher program. Cash recipients were provided with the local currency equivalent of $62.56 and were monitored closely to document and understand their purchase decisions. From among the areas already identified for the NFI distributions, the villages selected for participation in the pilot were chosen for their relative proximity to a major market.

The pilot objectives included:

1. To understand the actual household non-food needs of households selected for the UNICEF NFI kit program implemented by CRS and Caritas Kindu.

2. To assess the extent to which the UNICEF NFI kit was meeting household needs as typically a household's 'expressed need' differs from their 'demonstrated need,' the latter evidenced by what the household actually procures to meet its welfare needs when given the choice.

3. To understand intra-household decision making, notably that of households that were targeted as being war-impacted and in need of non-food assistance.

4. While issues regarding inflation and security are beyond the scope of the pilot and the limited scope presents biases which may limit the applicability of findings to other contexts, the pilot sheds light on intra-household decision-making dynamics, the appropriateness of the NFI kit intervention, and the items in demand by families in this post-conflict setting.


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