How Cash Programming Restores Dignity

When you have lost everything and can’t feed your family, it can be hard to feel you have any value. In some desperate situations, giving cash is an effective way, not only to meet needs but also to restore dignity. This is what Tearfund was able to offer for families in Iraq through a Cash and Voucher Assistance (CVA) program. CVA directly provided to recipients with cash transfers or vouchers for goods or services.

“There is no longer serious dispute about whether cash can significantly improve humanitarian aid. Established humanitarian actors now invest in cash at greater scale and more consistently than ever before. It is at the forefront of innovation for people in crisis.” - The State of World’s Cash Report

Cash is increasingly becoming mandatory in many aspects of humanitarian response. The question has changed from, ‘Can we use cash?’ to ‘Why cash isn’t being used?’.

Starting from 2014 in the Middle East, Tearfund currently uses CVA in Africa, Asia, Latin and Central America. Tailored to each context, Tearfund CVA’s activities are a combination of multipurpose cash transfers, sector-specific cash transfers, and vouchers and grants for livelihood start-up activities. To facilitate the implementation of CVA activities, Tearfund and its partners are piloting and using different technologies such as mobile money, smart cards and blockchain.


For Alma, aged 60, this has made all the difference. “We had everything we needed,” says Alma, remembering life back in Bashiqa, northern Iraq. “We had water and electricity. My family worked. That was before ISIS.”  

Alma fled her home with 11 of her family. Since then her husband has had a stroke. “We set up a makeshift tent with one room,” she says. “All of us, my children and my grandchildren, live here because we don’t have money to pay rent.”  Hundreds of thousands of families are displaced in Iraq, living in a life of uncertainty in camps and unfinished buildings. They hope against hope that they can rebuild their lives.

Better cash flow

But there are almost no possibilities of going home and there’s little work for displaced people. Families have no money to buy basic necessities: food, soap, and toothbrushes. Parents feel humiliated – powerless to provide for their families.  

The traditional idea of disaster relief brings to mind supply trucks snaking through bleak landscapes – a lifeline for those stripped of everything by disaster. But the picture is changing…

Woman giving thumbprint signature to claim the cash (Photo: Stella Chetham)

Recipient of cash grant leaves a thumbprint signature

Where local markets still function it’s often better to give families cash rather than goods, to cover basic needs and give people the opportunity to make a living. 

“Having cash helps people decide what they need most, giving them the flexibility and dignity of choice,” says Ninos, Tearfund Programme Officer. “People know their needs. With cash, they can meet them.”  

500 families who received cash in one project in Iraq were able to buy warm clothes, blankets, and heaters. They supplemented their diets with fresh food from the local markets. Others were able to buy medical treatment.  

Cash benefits a region’s economy because money is spent on local goods and services. It’s often more efficient than providing goods – it cuts out the added cost of storing and transporting items.  

Make good money

When so many choices have been taken away, having cash enabled Alma to decide what was most important for her family. “I will buy medicine for my husband, and look after my children and grandchildren,” she said. “Life is still very hard, but I am so grateful for this money.” Giving back control and dignity in the midst of desperation is priceless.

Tearfund’s Cash Advisor, Dora Piscoi, says, “I will never forget the words of a man during one of my first cash distributions. He looked me in the eyes and said ‘Thank you for respecting me.’ I’ve never been thanked like that before.  

“There are many advantages of giving cash. But the most important is that it recognizes and respects people as individuals. By giving cash instead of deciding what item a person should have, we are demonstrating we know that – despite being in a vulnerable situation – people are powerful and capable. We are telling families they are equal and we don’t want to disempower them. We want to come alongside and respect people. For me, that is the power of cash.”  

Tearfund uses CVA as its preferred modality to respond to humanitarian crises and to complement livelihood activities in countries where it operates directly and where it has a presence through partners. In line with the CaLP Global Framework for Action and the Grand Bargain, Tearfund’s standard practice is to build sufficient capacity, to invest in supporting national and local organizations to build leadership and capacity.