Cash transfers transform lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon

by Tanya Chapuisat, UNICEF Lebanon
Thursday, 13 April 2017 10:36 GMT

Syrian refugees walk outside tents at a makeshift settlement in Bar Elias town, in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon March 28, 2017. Picture taken March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Imagine you’re in free fall. You have limited means of making an income, you don’t know where to take your sick children and you worry about feeding them tonight. Then imagine you’re handed a card with money on it and you are told to use as you see fit to cover your most urgent needs. This is the card that nearly one million disadvantaged people in Lebanon now have.

In past years, cash transfers have transformed humanitarian aid across the globe. That is also the case in countries neighboring Syria where the magnitude of the protracted emergency and the needs are unprecedented. But so is the response. Syrian refugees in Lebanon can access services by swiping a card. Thanks to a single card and complementary programmes, they have a greater safety net that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

In the early stages of an emergency a one-size-fits-all aid is applied. A crisis on an epic scale however, requires  individual solutions. That’s the reason for the presence of a number of humanitarian actors, all uniquely positioned to respond through their expertise. In the context of Lebanon, the Government provides framework, UNICEF safeguards children, WFP feeds the hungry, UNHCR has the over-arching protection mandate and the Lebanon Cash Consortium is the crucial link to the grass-root. The aim? To go beyond aid towards socio-economic development. To support the poor and the disadvantaged.

Cash alone cannot eradicate the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and cash alone can’t get 11 year old Syrian, Jamal, to school. His mother has made the heartbreaking decision that Jamal is to be the family’s breadwinner while his younger brother gets to go to school. The family gets a monthly multi-purpose cash allowance, the same way many states provide unemployment benefits. Even though the school fees are covered by the UN and Jamal’s family receives additional support as a female-headed household, and even though public health centers provide basic health care and there is clean water in the settlement, Jamal still can’t go. All of it, to no avail. Jamal is still not getting an education. His income is still needed to feed his siblings and buy medicine for his four year old sister who has a heart condition.

Refugees are people of flesh and blood with varied needs that call for multiple services, referral and guidance, not quick fixes. That is why humanitarian agencies in Lebanon provide holistic services. Because unprecedented measures call for new solutions, a development-like approach where possible.

Last year, the Lebanon Cash Consortium (LCC), UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP, introduced a revolutionary way for refugees to access cash and services. One targeting, one database, one distribution system, one E-card, one appeal mechanism, one call center and links to existing services. The individual follow-up and services provided through the card, catch those that otherwise would fall through the cracks. The system is financially transparent, minimizes duplication, maximizes accountability and addresses needs beyond those caused by income poverty.

This is a first, and none of this would be achievable by a single agency. The result is a humanitarian safety net, a multi-functional platform that strengthens social protection for the Lebanese and allows Syrian refugees to pay back to the hosting community. This is a package built around the needs of refugees themselves.

Without social protection and access to integrated services, tens of thousands of Syrian refugee children will never know what a classroom looks like. Assistance to access health and education is crucial; in other words, dismantling the very hurdles in each one of these children’s paths to school. Although hugely important as a push from the bottom, cash cannot buy refugees dignity or a guarantee of not getting trapped in poverty. Handing out cash to Jamal and his mother and expect him to start attending school, is unrealistic. Cash allowances to refugees is one thing - addressing their multiple needs and help them progress, is another. Through the cash modality, agencies acquire a close insight into individual challenges and expenditure patterns. This allows deploying concerted efforts to address challenges that are both multifaceted and intertwined. The cash transfers and the programme built around it - are one and the same.

It’s not mere financial support that can send Jamal to school and make his sister get better. It’s meeting with their family, working with their community, and ensuring that they benefit from the programmatic skills provided by local NGOs and international humanitarian agencies, based on more than seven decades of working in Lebanon. Only by doing so and applying all the tools in the box, some new, some old, will we succeed in removing the obstacles.

Tanya Chapuisat, representative, UNICEF Lebanon