How do people use cash assistance from UNHCR?

How do people use cash assistance from UNHCR?

Main outcomes from the 2023 Post-Distribution Monitoring

29 May 2024

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Mauritania. UNHCR delivers cash-based interventions (CBI) through prepaid cards to refugees in urban areas
©UNHCR/Bechir Malum

Traditionally, humanitarian agencies distributed in-kind items such as food, buckets and kitchen sets, giving disaster-affected people little choice and dignity in how to meet their own needs. In the past 10 years, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have increasingly moved to cash assistance and the use of cash in humanitarian assistance has increased by 41% since 2015. Studies have repeatedly shown that cash is the most efficient and effective form of assistance. Further, new technology, such as mobile money and digital wallets, makes it easy to send cash directly to displaced populations and promotes financial and digital inclusion.

Cash distributed over time | 2015 - 2023

To ensure the effectiveness of cash assistance, UNHCR conducts Post-Distribution Monitoring. The results of the 2023 monitoring show that cash continue to be effective in responding to people’s needs, improving their living conditions and overall well-being, including in emergencies. Cash remains the preferred modality of assistance, as compared to in-kind aid. The findings also highlight sustained humanitarian needs and exacerbated protection risks among the displaced and stateless populations, which require continued care and attention by both humanitarian and development actors.

UNHCR collected Post-Distribution Monitoring data in 73 countries through nearly 32,000 household interviews between January and December 2023.

Countries that conducted Post-Distribution Monitoring in 2023

UNHCR used cash for a wide range of purposes, including protection, basic needs, education, shelter, health, and livelihoods, in line with UNHCR’s approach to cash. 95% of the cash was disbursed without restrictions, meaning that refugees chose how to spend it. With over two thirds of cash delivered through digital means, including personally owned bank or mobile money accounts, cash was a vehicle for digital and financial inclusion and empowerment. Where national regulations did not allow refugees’ access to formal financial services, UNHCR used alternative formal means for delivering cash, such as pre-paid cards. In many countries, UNHCR’s assistance complements governments’ social assistance efforts by contributing an additional safety net for refugees and other vulnerable displaced and stateless people.

Key figures – UNHCR’s cash assistance in 2023

of cash assistance


people received assistance


countries covered

Cash improved living conditions and well being

Cash assistance continued to be critical for the wellbeing of displaced and stateless people in 2023. 95% of the respondents reported that cash improved their living conditions.

Percentage of households reporting improved living conditions

Cash assistance also helped to reduce feelings of stress for 95% of the surveyed households, highlighting an important, positive psychosocial effect by cash assistance on their well-being.

Emergency cash assistance to Sudanese new arrivals in Egypt

UNHCR provided emergency cash assistance to new arrivals from Sudan. The PDM results show how emergency cash can efficiently meet the needs of forcibly displaced people. Cash enabled 99% of the recipients to afford items and services which they could not afford before, including purchasing more diverse and nutritious food, pay rent and avoid eviction, as well as pay utility bills.

Almost 40 % of the respondents reported that cash allowed them to meet all their priority needs while another 36% stated that it covered more than half of their needs.

Satisfaction was high overall, and over 90% of the recipients were satisfied with the cash assistance and felt safe throughout the process.

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Egypt. A recently arrived refugee from Sudan, mother of three children, is a recipient of UNHCR’s cash assistance. The assistance will enable her to take her daughter, who has respiratory problems, to see a doctor. © UNHCR

Cash was used to meet basic needs

Cash assistance was a crucial safety net for displaced and stateless people, allowing them to meet their immediate basic needs. As in 2022, food, health, rent, and clothes/ shoes were the largest expenditure categories in most operations, as shown in the graphic below.

Top expenditures, as a percentage of households interviewed

85% of the households reported having access to key services and goods they needed in the local markets and shops. Only 11% of households reported challenges in receiving, keeping, or spending cash assistance.

A small proportion of households reported feeling at risk when withdrawing, spending, or keeping the money at home. This was most common in operations with overall security risks, such as Afghanistan, or where the target population live in high-risk areas, such as in some Central American countries.

Cash and long-term integration in the Southern Cone of Americas

In the Southern Cone of Americas (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia), UNHCR provides cash assistance to refugees to cover their basic needs while they wait to be included in the national social protection schemes. The project had a significant impact in improving refugees’ lives with 70% of the assisted households being able to stabilize their housing situation for over six months, thus avoiding eviction and securing a sense of wellbeing.

The overall use of coping strategies was also reduced by at least 30%, and the use of extreme coping strategies, such as begging or collecting food scraps, by over 65%.

The sale and exchange of sex as well as child labour were eliminated. Cash assistance also promoted overall inclusion and access to financial services - 38% of the recipients reported opening a bank account thanks to cash assistance and over 30% obtained official documentation. The results highlight how the strategic use of cash assistance can bring benefits beyond immediate provision of basic needs, empowering refugees for a more secure and stable integration process.

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Chile. Recently arrived displaced family receiving cash assistance for basic needs in Santiago. © UNHCR

Needs and protection risks remain significant

While cash assistance has undeniably helped refugees and other forcible displaced people to cover their basic needs, major gaps and protection risks remain. Overall, almost 70% of the interviewed households could meet only half or less of their basic needs, while 30% reported that they could meet more than half of or all their basic needs.

Ability to meet basic needs, percentage of households

Further, 60% of the surveyed households engaged in one or more negative coping mechanisms to meet their basic needs. While concerning, this is an improvement from 2022 when 72% of respondents reported using negative coping mechanisms. There was wide variation between countries in the use of negative coping strategies, ranging from less than 10% in some places to 100% others.

Most common coping strategies, as percentage of households interviewed

Despite the positive impacts of cash assistance, these protection risks demonstrate a need for continued investment in humanitarian assistance coupled with robust protection interventions and case management as well as significant investment in displacement settings by humanitarian and development actors.

UNHCR's cash assistance in 2023