Why cash for work?

When an emergency situation occurs, whether it’s a fast-onset emergency like the earthquake in Haiti, or a slow-onset like this year's food crisis in the Sahel region of Africa (that is, one that had been building for many months), the immediate concern of aid agencies is the survival of the most vulnerable. That means we need to make sure there is clean water, sanitation, food, shelter and warmth – the basics of human existence.

But we’re also concerned about long-term resilience. In areas where emergencies are a constant risk – where drought is chronic, for example – we want to make sure the communities we help are better prepared for the next emergency. This is why we work a lot in strengthening livelihoods, digging boreholes and giving access to clean water. If a community has access to drought-resilient seeds or better irrigation for their crops, they’re more likely to weather the next drought. If a village has a borehole, villagers won’t need to travel as far in search of water. And when things like livelihoods and water supplies are protected, other things can flourish – like schools and commerce.

In short term, immediate needs of an emergency. It’s common to think that food distribution is the only response to a food shortage. It is just one response, however, and not always appropriate – especially in communities where food is already available but priced too highly for the majority to afford. That’s often the case during food crisis situations. To distribute food into an area where it’s already available can depress local markets, discourage local food production and actually sustain food shortages.

There are other drawbacks:

  • Transporting food is often expensive, adding unnecessary cost
  • Food isn’t transferable. So if a family needs medical care, they still can’t pay the doctor. In some cases, recipients have sold the food – and at prices lower than the cost of providing it in the first place.

One solution Oxfam uses in these situations is a Cash For Work (CFW) program. This is a program where some of the most vulnerable members of the community are paid in return for work on a project designed to assist in the long-term development of the community – thus addressing both short and long-term needs at one time.

Examples of these types of project vary and are dictated by the context, and by needs identified after consultation with the affected community. In Niger, a CFW program sees half-moon shaped irrigation channels dug so that, when the next rainy season arrives, rain water is trapped and has time to permeate the soil rather than running off the surface (contributing to flooding). It’s a two-fold solution. In Haiti, we paid residents to put together shelter materials, or build latrines and otherwise clean camps of rubbish and human waste, creating a more comfortable and more hygienic living space.

Like outright food distribution, cash for work isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It is not appropriate, for example, in communities without cash economies, or where food is simply unavailable regardless of monetary income. But it is one effective approach in an emergency situation, and one way Oxfam can help to alleviate the immediate problems of communities in a food crisis.

Oxfam is a founding partner of the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP), an organisation aiming to improve the quality of emergency cash transfer and voucher programming across the humanitarian sector.

Originally published by Oxfam New Zealand

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