The Price of Dignity

The Price of Dignity

By Erik Johnson, Head of Humanitarian Response 

Thirty years is too long to be receiving food distribution. Thirty years of waiting to go home. Thirty years of passively receiving the same package of the same 5 food commodities, trying to mix them into new meal combinations. Over 30 years, that’s 32,850 times of trying to make a meal of rice, fish paste, oil, salt and beans.

This week we’re trying to change that. After 30 years of receiving food distribution in the camps along the  border in Western Thailand, the Karen people who fled the ongoing violence and forced displacement in Myanmar will finally get the opportunity to choose for the first time. Together with our partner, The Border Consortium, we’re distributing an e-voucher card that will enable the households to choose from a range of over 25 food commodities in shops that are operated by the refugees themselves throughout the camp. Though it’s only a pilot project for 600 families, if it works we’ll be able to scale up the initiative across the 10 camps and over 100,000 people will finally get to decide what they want to eat.

But once our teams see the smiles on people’s faces after their first trip to the market, the change is obvious

Erik Johnson

Across the world I’ve seen the transformative power of cash transfer programming. It’s often harder for aid workers to get used to the transition to cash than it is for the beneficiaries themselves; no longer having to calculate a ration, no need for a complicated system of targeting, warehousing and distribution. But once our teams see the smiles on people’s faces after their first trip to the market, the change is obvious: cash gives means choice. Choice about what to buy, more flexibility about when and where to buy it, and in the end, a greater sense of dignity, all happen at once.

Usually, the market is far more efficient than the aid agencies can be; beneficiary families often sell a small amount of their rations to buy other items that aren’t included in the distribution pack, including both food items like spices, and non-food items like household medicines, clothing, or school supplies. With cash they’ll make these adjustments without the loss of value that occurs with every sale of a cup of rice in a camp where rice is distributed for free. And usually, they will be able to save a small amount that they can put to work for their family in a productive way, either for starting a small business, or for savings.

And this is more important than ever for the Karen (pronounced, ‘Ka-REN’) families in these camps. After thirty years of receiving, soon they’ll be expected to produce, and to manage their household finances to a degree that they never have before. The political transition in their homeland is promising, and the hope is that within a year or two they will be able to return ‘home,’ many to a home they’ve never had the chance to visit, having either been born in the camps or moved there at a very early age. Being able to manage a household food budget over the course of a month will be one of the many crucial skills that they’ll have to acquire, or at least refine.

Value for Money

But while I’ve seen the power of cash to give families more choice, flexibility and dignity, as well as its ability to achieve cost efficiencies that stretch aid dollars further, the situation in these camps is more complex than many. In fact, here the use of cash may cost even more than distributing food, at least in the short term.

Over 30 years, The Border Consortium – of which DCA is a founding member – has been finely refining its system of wholesale procurement and supply chain management that has enabled them to feed up to 150,000 people per month when the camps were at their largest. Through open international tenders for rice, through buying ‘broken’ rice that’s less valuable on the market, and through pioneering a uniquely managed and operated program that runs almost exclusively on refugee labor instead of NGO staffs, the price that it costs TBC to feed one family for one month is about as low as it can get.

Above all, to give them a greater sense of dignity.

Erik Johnson

Which begs the question: when the distributions stop, and people are able to buy and choose their food instead of receiving it, will the retail market be able to respond with similar prices to what TBC has been able to achieve through wholesale tenders? And if not, how much more will the refugees – and, in the end, TBC and its donors – have to pay?

The goals of the transition to cash transfer programming are many, but chief among them are to empower people, to let them make choices that also reduce inefficiency, to give them flexibility to adapt the assistance to their own needs, but above all, to give them a greater sense of dignity. But what if the cost of that cash programs cost more than it does to distribute food? What if it’s 5% higher? What if it’s 50% higher? What, in essence, is the price of dignity?

Food vs. Cash

As Head of the Humanitarian Response Unit at DCA, getting our organization to take up cash transfer programming is one of my biggest achievements in my 13 years with the organization. In 2008 we were among the first NGOs to try this new approach, which we saw as a fulfilment of our commitment to empower disaster-affected people to claim their rights and take charge of their own recovery. In country after country I’ve seen the revolution that cash can spark, as a family leaves a shop with smiles on their faces and bags full of items that they have chosen, almost as they did before the crisis.

When a woman offered me – the white NGO worker – some of the high-energy biscuits that she had received, I didn’t understand

Erik Johnson

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a food distribution in Guinea as Sierra Leonean refugees clamored under the hot sun with army personnel watching from atop an armored personnel carrier. The mood was desperate as they jostled in line for their sacks of grain printed with the words, ‘Gift of the American People’ printed on the side. When a woman offered me – the white NGO worker – some of the high-energy biscuits that she had received, I didn’t understand, until the driver explained that this was her way of thanking me for our largesse. Later in the day the crowd grew agitated and a young man staggered away with a gash bleeding from his forehead after it met with a soldier’s rifle butt. It’s the kind of thing I remember when I tell someone from home that I do disaster relief for living, and they tell me that they admire me for having chosen to do such selfless, meaningful work. Not all food distributions are so grim, but they’re rarely pretty, and nothing like the joy you see from beneficiaries who are treated with dignity and empowerment – through cash in hand – that they deserve.

More Cash, Better Cash – But Will It Work?

DCA supported over 27 cash transfer projects in 2015, and the number, scale, and sophistication of these projects grows every year. Some are electronic vouchers, like the one we’re rolling out today in Thailand, whilst others now transfer cash electronically to beneficiaries’ mobile phones, which means that the transfer is not only safer and more secure, but produces airtight financial documentation to determine who got what. That keeps our donors and supporters happy, too. But I’ve never seen a cash transition as complex as the one we’re facing today in Nu Poe camp.

Cash transfer programming works so well for the same reasons that western economies have triumphed over centrally planned ones, why the outcomes in cold war East and West Germany were so dramatically different. Markets work. They work because of competition, and people’s power to choose, are a magical combination. In these camps, however, the wholesalers may not be able to respond to the demand in the camps, spread out across 10 locations that are in remote areas far from city centers. The number of retailers may be limited by the government, who have potentially legitimate concerns about traders circulating freely in and out of the camps, from which, by local law, the refugees are technically not allowed to leave (though they often do.) In short, there may not be enough market integration, and there may not be enough competition.

Are we helpless in front of these challenges? Of course not. We’ve got at least a dozen options. TBC could help to link the wholesalers and suppliers. They could actually act as a wholesaler in the camps themselves, using their warehouses, as an interim measure, until the private traders can take over. They can work with the authorities to increase the number of traders, including through responding to any concerns that they may have. They can provide loans, seed capital, and business training to traders. Sooner or later, the market will take over. It may even happen on its own, without any extra assistance. I will take some work. But it’s not a question of whether this will happen; it’s already happening.

Sitting under the spinning fans in the back of a dirt-floor hall packed with refugees listening to the TBC staff make short theatre for the camp residents about how they will shop with their new electronic voucher cards, I couldn’t be happier. Later we wander around the markets and ensure that the traders are able to work with the new system, and chat with happy families as they fill their food baskets with rice, but also with eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, and fresh fish. There’s no doubt that it’s worth the effort. Because you can’t put a price on dignity.

Read in danish
Sign up for more longreads