Violence, conflicts, socioeconomic crises, and natural disasters are forcing millions of people to leave their homes. That number is only expected to increase with estimates that two hundred million people could be displaced by 2050.   

The situation in the Americas is typical of this reality. The displacement of Venezuelans is the second largest population movement in the world after Syria. Of the four million displaced Venezuelans without formal refugee status, approximately 73 per cent seek refuge in other countries of the Americas. In addition, in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador; nearly 900,000 people have been forcibly displaced – moving within their countries and to other countries in the region. Throughout the world, people are taking increasing risks as they move, often passing though dangerous routes to their desired destinations. 

The growing use of Cash and Voucher Assistance 

The use of Cash and Voucher Assistance is increasingly being used to meet the needs of crisis affected people. Cash and voucher assistance refers to all programmes where cash transfers or vouchers for goods or services are directly provided to recipients. This allows recipients to decide how best to use the assistance they receive to meet their specific needs. In humanitarian contexts agencies provide transfers through a variety of mechanisms including mobile money, credit cards, through ATMs and banks to help crisis affected people meet their diverse needs. For example, in Peru IOM provides cash transfers to people in the move for rent and basic needs. 

The  use of cash and voucher assistance in humanitarian response has more than doubled since 2015 and it has been used throughout the world in crises marked by human mobility, such the Sahel, the Mediterranean, and most recently Ukraine and surrounding countries. In the Americas, cash and voucher assistance has been a key form of assistance for Venezuelans who have fled their country — and has been so important that has warranted its own coordination mechanism. 

Why is cash and voucher assistance particularly suited to supporting people on the move? 

People on the move usually need humanitarian assistance that is fast and adaptable. 

While it may not be the right response in all contexts of human mobility because of irregular movements, government restrictions, and limited access to markets along migratory routes among other issues, in many situations - done well – it ticks lots of boxes for such responses.

Cash and voucher assistance can provide rapid assistance in unfamiliar places and reduce people’s exposure to risks. What's more, feedback from recipients shows that it is more flexible, gives more options, and preserves dignity compared to in-kind assistance. 

Another factor to consider is that people’s needs change along their journey and that they confront multiple challenges along their migratory routes. Individual risks and vulnerabilities vary – shaped by factors such as demography, routes, and motivations. Typically, challenges are amplified for children, people with disabilities, and trans people. With so many variables at play, the flexibility of cash and voucher assistance is of real benefit.

The need to change how humanitarians think and respond 

At present, most humanitarian responses are not agile enough to respond effectively to the evolving needs of people on the move – even though we know that people’s needs change along their journey. This is true of all forms of humanitarian assistance, including cash and voucher assistance. While cash and voucher assistance is more portable and more dignified than other forms of aid, the way practitioners are designing and implementing programmes for people on the move may not respond to the reality of their changing needs. 

To do better, a recent paper by CALP argues that we need to reframe how we think about people on the move and change the way we design and deliver humanitarian programmes. 

Three opportunities to reframe our thinking around human mobility and cash and voucher assistance: 

1. Let’s think about people on a journey, and how that journey evolves. Let’s think from the perspective of their journey not the labels agencies apply.  The language of Internally Displaced Person, refugee, or migrant can get in the way of us understanding needs and how they change along a journey. By being more cognisant of the changing needs of people on the move, we can design more adaptable humanitarian programmes with cash and voucher assistance. 

2. The ability to move, also known as motility, is a form of capital that can generate economic and social benefits. Having low motility is a form of social inequity. Not being able to move can be a major factor in increasing vulnerability for migrants. Viewing human mobility in this way can help us move from thinking about people on the move as being negative, to seeing motility as being about resilience. It can also help us to reframe how and who we target to receive cash and voucher assistance.

3. We need to focus on removing “frictions.” Frictions are moments of contact between people on the move and their environment – for example, the point of registering for assistance or trying to buy food in a new area where they don't know where things are. Understanding these frictions, and when they occur, can help us design better programmes with cash and voucher assistance that respond more effectively to the needs of people on the move.

A final challenge

Where cash and voucher assistance is the right modality, it can be a powerful way of meeting needs. By reframing how we think about human mobility, we can make it even more powerful. 

But how prepared are we as humanitarian actors to change our approach to program design? How willing are we to be creative in making the use of cash and voucher assistance work for people on the move? 

Agreements are in place that allow us to work differently at both global and regional levels. It is now up to us to respond more effectively - people on the move deserve nothing less. 

To consider these points in more depth, please take a look at the recent paper published by the CALP Network: ‘People are on the move: Can the world of Cash and Voucher Assistance keep up? Analysis of the use of Cash and Voucher Assistance in the context of human mobility in the Americas.’

The CALP Network is a dynamic global network engaged in the critical areas of policy, practice and research in humanitarian cash and voucher assistance and financial assistance more broadly. Collectively, CALP members deliver most humanitarian Cash and Voucher Assistance worldwide.