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Cash transfers for Somali refugees: experiences from a pilot programme in Ethiopia

Sheder Camp, Refugee Cash Beneficary October 2013Samuel Tadesse

Samuel is working as a Nutrition and Food Security Consultant with UNHCR Ethiopia. He has more than 15 years experience in humanitarian response programs, including nutrition, food security and livelihoods.

Ethiopia is home to more than 400,000 refugees from neighboring countries, displaced by manmade and natural disasters that have forced people to flee their homes and seek humanitarian assistance. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in collaboration with the Ethiopian Government’s Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA), are coordinating humanitarian assistance to ensure protection and assistance for the refugees. The refugee population is primarily dependent on the general food ration provided monthly by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and administered by ARRA. The in-kind food assistance, comprised of wheat grain, rice, blended food, vegetable oil, pulses, sugar and salt, is provided to meet the daily 2,100 Kcal energy needs and essential/basic micronutrient requirements.

The October 2012 Joint Assessment Mission (JAM) by WFP, UNHCR and partners revealed that refugees are selling and bartering the in-kind food in exchange for access to preferred foods and other unmet needs. This has negatively impacted the dietary diversity of the food consumed. In addition, the food is often sold on poor terms of trade compared to local market prices for similar commodities. The most sold food commodity is wheat. Market information collected on a regular basis reveals that refugees in most camps are selling 50 kg bags of wheat for an average of 200 Ethiopian Burr (E TB) (approximately $10.68 USD) and 1 kg of wheat for 4 ETB ($0.21 USD). Meanwhile the costs for WFP to purchase and transport equal amounts to the site is around 600 ETB ($31.90 USD) for a 50 kg bag and 12 ETB ($0.64 USD) for 1 kg. As a result of these findings, the JAM recommended alternate means of food assistance, including cash or vouchers.

Following WFP’s shift from food aid to food assistance and the global WFP-UNHCR cash and voucher action plan, WFP and UNHCR in Ethiopia drafted a Joint Action Plan for a cash and voucher pilot program in Ethiopia in mid-2012. This plan was also discussed with the ARRA whereby all parties agreed on the objectives and way forward. The three organisations conducted several sector assessments which included: market viability and access; security; financial transaction systems; support and social cohesion among refugees and host community; government policy. In addition, in-depth market and vendor assessments and beneficiary consultations with various groups in possible pilot sites (Somali camps in the East and Eritrean camps in the North) were conducted.

Findings from these studies showed that camps in the eastern part of the country have functional markets and that traders are able to respond to the anticipated increase in demand. Consultations with the refugee communities indicated interest towards combining cash with the in-kind food in order to gain access to greater variety of foods in the market. Simultaneously, WFP received a EUR 1 million contribution from a donor for a pilot project to enable refugees to meet minimum levels of food security. Specific objectives for this funding included: to meet beneficiaries’ food preferences, provide flexibility and choice of food items for refugees, improve dietary diversity and mitigate the unintended effects of food transfers (reducing the sale of food rations).

A cash transfer pilot project was designed. Two camps were selected: Sheder (12,500 Somali refugees) and Aw-barre (13,500 Somali refugees). In addition to demonstrating market suitability and beneficiary interest, the selected camps were medium-sized and there were no expected major influxes in 2013. The partners agreed to start with a cautious approach replacing 6 kg of the wheat (about 50%) from the monthly general food ration with 100 Ethiopian Birr (USD $5.30) per month. This decision was taken based on focus group discussion with the community and was reaffirmed by ration spending patterns and post-distribution monitoring data. It was felt that this amount of cash would enable beneficiaries to purchase a similar amount of preferred cereals in order to maintain the minimum requirement of food security (2,100 Kcal/day/person). It was acknowledged that each household would make the final decision on what to purchase to support their respective families. As is the case with food in-kind, women hold the household ration card and are the primary recipient of assistance for their families. Cash worked the same way, as WFP/UNHCR/ARRA used the same list of recipients for the cash portion of the distribution. Therefore, except in families without adult females, women were the primary target and recipient of the cash. Other in-kind food commodities remained in the basket as indicated in table 1.

Table 1: Lists of food basket and cash
In-kind food basket before
introduction of cash
Food and cash combined

Wheat grain 11.4 kg

Wheat 5.4 kg
Rice 4 kg Rice 4 kg
Pulses 1.5 kg Pulses 1.5 kg
Fortified Corn Soya Blend (CSB+)
1.5 kg
Fortified Corn Soya Blend (CSB+)
1.5 kg
Vegetable oil 0.9 kg Vegetable oil 0.9 kg
Sugar 450 g Sugar 450 g
Salt 150g Salt 150g
  ETB 100 (USD $5.30)


The pilot was initiated in phases; first starting in Sheder in July 2013 and expanding to Aw-barre in October 2013.

The project gave considerable emphasis on community participation at each stage ensuring the refugees were involved in decision making, for example in choosing which part of the food basket was to be replaced by cash. Refugee communities effectively led the pre-distribution information dissemination and were closely involved in reporting of cash related incidences, crowd control during distribution, prioritisation of vulnerable groups, and maintaining the peace and security in their village. Many of the refugee committee members are men, and sensitisation on effective messaging was conducted to ensure that women were comfortable and included in the discussions.

Apart from regular monitoring (including monthly food/cash distribution monitoring and post-distribution monitoring), an in-depth study was conducted in Sheder Camp during October 2013, three months after the project began, to further assess the appropriateness, effectiveness, costefficiency, protection issues and nutritional impact of the programme. The study consisted of assessments of individual households (including diet diversity and food frequency questionnaires), focus group discussions with women and men and key informant interviews (mainly vendors and staffs of UNHCR, WFP and ARRA).

With regards to nutritional impact, overall Food Consumption Scores (FCS) were calculated in the post-distribution survey (October 2013) and compared to the scores at baseline (August 2012). The results indicated a positive improvement in FCS (Table 2) suggesting that refugees were able to purchase a wider variety of foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, animal protein sources such as meat and milk and more preferred cereals. Beneficiaries reported that they were highly satisfied with the substitution of cash for some of the wheat in the ration as the cash provided them with flexibility and enabled households to diversify their diets (Table 3). Focus group discussions revealed that the additional cash has enhanced dignity and strengthened the negotiation power of refugees with the traders.

Table 2: Change in Food Consumption Score between 2012 and
2013 (Sheder camp)
Score Rating
August 2012
October 2013
% Change
between 2012
and 2013


18 8 -55%
Borderline 35 17 -52%
Adequate 47 75 +60%


Table 3: Types of food purchased by cash from local market
Types of food Percentage

Milk (cheese and yogurt)

Vegetables (and fruits) 16
Sugar 14
Pasta and macaroni 13
Wheat flour 9
Meat and eggs 6
Loan repayment for borrowed food 16
Other foods (rice, oil etc.) 4
TOTAL 100%


The outcome of the programme will be further reviewed after the joint nutritional surveys, which will be conducted in May 2014, to see the nutritional impact in comparison to the baseline data. Informal feedback suggests that cash is very well liked; many beneficiaries have requested that the entire cereal portion of basket be replaced by cash.

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Samuel Tadesse (). Cash transfers for Somali refugees: experiences from a pilot programme in Ethiopia. Nutrition Exchange 4, July 2014. p25.



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