But increasingly, humanitarian organisations have been turning away from transporting bags of commodities to crisis areas, and are instead focusing on giving refugees the means to buy their own food.
The UK-based Overseas Development Institute estimates that cash and vouchers now account for around 6% of total humanitarian spending, up from less than 1% in 2004. That is still a small amount but the United Nations World Food Program says cash now accounts for just over a quarter of its assistance.
Cash and vouchers are particularly popular in urban areas, and have been extensively used to support Syrian refugees. That often means vouchers that can be used at supermarkets or even cash wired directly to those in need.
The European Commission has been supporting cash and voucher projects in its humanitarian aid provision for refugee programmes in Greece and Turkey – together with public authorities and NGOs.
In September 2016, the Commission announced a €115 million support programme providing direct assistance to refugees through cash/voucher schemes. Earlier this month, the EU executive committed a further €180 million for aid projects in Greece, which is likely to include more voucher projects.
EU Humanitarian Aid has also been a partner in setting up the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) programme is a partnership together with the World Food Programme (WFP), the Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish government.
Aside from the dignity and choice that cash and vouchers offer, they are also seen as a more effective method of supporting the local economy.
Traditional in-kind assistance – like soap, blankets, rice – is often sold by refugees below market price, to get something they need more. Cash allows them to keep the full value of the support they receive, and to prioritise according to their needs.
“We give more choice than in kind and less choice than cash,” says Nolwenn Bertrand, public policy manager for Edenred, a company which implements voucher schemes.
She told EURACTIV that 160,000 families in Turkey have benefitted from programmes started in 2014, under which they received an average of $30 per month, which was loaded onto a card.
In Greece, meanwhile, Edenred has been part of a programme with the UNHCR offering vouchers for hygiene products.
If cash offers recipients more choice, vouchers are popular with the donor community because it is easier to track and trace their use. Since the funds supporting the system are public, it is important that programmes provide robust tracking measures to ensure correct and efficient usage.
However, vouchers are in a ‘half-way house’ between cash and in-kind support, treated by the Commission as being ‘like cash’, but excluded from the scope of its Payment Services Directive.
EURACTIV understands that the Commission is currently more focused on increasing its direct cash programmes but is open to increasing the use of voucher schemes.
“The European Commission is committed to using the most effective and efficient modality in the provision of humanitarian assistance,” said Eunice Maina, the European Commission’s humanitarian programme assistant for Uganda.