Cash Transfers a Successful Antidote to Sahel Emergency

Action Against Hunger uses innovative method to help thousands of families in food crisis across five countries
A cash-for-work program to construct a reservoir in Niger. Photo: ACF-Niger
A cash-for-work program to construct a reservoir for livestock in Keita, Niger. Photo: ACF-Niger

Although it may seem counter-intuitive in the context of a humanitarian emergency, money can be one of the most effective mediums for saving lives during emergencies such as that unfolding across the Sahel—a crisis in which three million children are expected to become severely malnourished in the coming months. Cash-based interventions are becoming one of the most efficient means of alleviating nutritional crises and bolstering vulnerable communities, and all across the Sahel, our teams are overseeing a range of cash-for-work programs, food voucher initiatives and direct cash transfers designed to help thousands of families weather the regional food crisis in Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad.

“As food crises are no longer linked to food availability but to problems of economic access to food readily available in local markets, currency interventions have become more prominent in the humanitarian sector, particularly in the last five years.”

Julien Jacob, Food Security Advisor, Action Against Hunger

The concept of cash-based interventions is relatively new in the humanitarian field, one that assumes that those in need of assistance are best suited to assess their own needs. “This is not only effective, but it instills dignity and offers a less paternalistic approach to humanitarian action,” added Mr. Jacob.

Cash-based interventions hold a number of advantages when being applied as a substitute for traditional food assistance, like emergency food distributions during times of crisis and scarcity: cash-based programs can support local and regional markets, provide vulnerable families with disposable income (ensuring local market “demand”), and can spur economic activity to help counter a given humanitarian crisis.

Targeting the Most Vulnerable

Of course, it is not a simple matter of handing out cash and ACF chooses its cash transfer recipients carefully. Cash transfer programs rely on comprehensive eligibility criteria, often targeting heads of households who are single parents, elderly, disabled, chronically ill, or have a family member in treatment for malnutrition. Eligibility can also depend on economic factors such as asset losses, work opportunities, external sources of support, and number of dependents. Considerable research, planning, and strategy are required to ensure that proper safeguards are in place and that potential market distortions are minimized.

“It’s usually more efficient to provide cash grants to women because that usually ensures the money is spent on food and nourishment for their children...”

—Julien Jacob, Food Security Advisor, Action Against Hunger

Background: Varied forms of cash transfer

ACF’s cash transfer interventions are tailored for specific communities, whether the goal is emergency relief, crisis prevention or long-term development. Here’s an overview of the organization’s three main intervention strategies in the current response in the Sahel:

  • Cash-for-Work Programs: This form of transfer provides a wage in exchange for useful work for the community, such as taking part in a road rehabilitation project. These transfers work well for families who have one or more members who are healthy enough to engage in active labor.
  • Food Vouchers help families supplement their diets with nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables for children under five who need to enhance their micronutrient consumption.
  • Cash Grants: These are used predominantly to assist the most vulnerable people, such as widows or families who are unable to participate in cash for work programs.

ACF is currently carrying out cash-based interventions across the Sahel—in Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad—where some 11 million people are already food insecure with the goal of preventing an even greater food crisis later this Spring.

CaLP Initiative

In addition to drawing on its own expertise, ACF’s innovative cash-based interventions are informed by its membership in the Cash Learning Partnership (CALP), a consortium of humanitarian organizations working to promote best practices and improve the quality of cash transfer programs around the world. The CaLP’s five steering committee members include Oxfam Great Britain, the British Red Cross, Save the Children UK, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Action Against Hunger | ACF International.

Tell Us What You Think

What risks would you associate with cash transfers during natural disasters? How can food and cash together serve as effective forms of aid? Is dignity an important consideration during life-threatening crises?