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Multi-Purpose Cash and Sectoral Outcomes: a Review of Evidence and Learning

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Executive Summary

Growing attention to multi-purpose cash offers an exciting opportunity to redress a long-standing shortcoming of humanitarian response. There is a need to better understand and respond to crisis-affected people in a more holistic and coherent way, going beyond sectors to bring the emphasis back to how people live and perceive and prioritize their needs. Multi-purpose cash opens up possibilities for enhanced collaboration among technical sectors and between cash and sector experts. Sectoral expertise should be more adequately represented in multi-sectoral assessments, design, implementation and monitoring of multi-purpose cash.

Multi-purpose cash makes up the largest proportion of cash-based interventions implemented by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, but there is scope for further upscaling in displacement settings. This report sets out evidence and learning on the sectoral outcomes of multi-purpose cash, drawing on a literature review, key informant interviews and case studies from Greece and Afghanistan. As ample evidence of the past ten years demonstrates, cash is an important part of the humanitarian toolbox that can allow people to meet their basic needs effectively and with dignity. However, evidence is lacking on how far multi-purpose cash contributes to sectoral outcomes in health, WASH, shelter, food security and nutrition, education, livelihoods, energy and environment programming, and how sectoral interventions should include multi-purpose cash along with other activities to best reach intended sectoral outcomes that contribute to protection. This report helps address this gap.

Key Findings

Multi-purpose cash has positive outcomes, including in sectors beyond food security: There is strong evidence for the positive impact of multi-purpose cash in relation to nutrition, food security and livelihoods. Whilst the evidence is weaker for WASH, health, education, shelter, and the energy and environment sectors, it is clear that people do put the cash assistance to use in such areas, for instance on improving their access to water, sanitation, health care and education. How people use cash is context specific, but it is usually spent according to a hierarchy of needs – most immediate needs first (food, basic shelter, primary or emergency health care) and other needs later (investments in livelihoods, secondary and tertiary health care, less essential goods).

Value, frequency, duration and seasonality affect the outcomes of multi-purpose cash: The bigger the transfer the more impacts across sectors. Evidence from social transfers indicates that, simply put, “bigger transfers equal bigger impacts” (Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler, 2015: 7). Frequency, duration and seasonality (such as cash at the beginning of the school year, or for winterization) matter for outcomes. More evidence is needed on the right balance of small regular grants and larger one-off payments. Transparency on the duration of transfers is important. If people know for how long they will receive a regular grant they are better able to plan and budget how to use it.

Multi-purpose cash may meet cross-sectoral needs efficiently and effectively: The provision of one grant that covers multiple sectors rather than several sector-specific grants can be more efficient and effective in meeting a wide range of needs. It can also foster greater flexibility and choice in ways that enable people to decide what to prioritize. Multi-purpose cash may also have multiplier effects in local economies and offer opportunities to promote longer-term financial inclusion and social protection.