The case for cash: Goma after the Nyiragongo eruption
by Barry Sesnan, UNDP November 2004

The Mount Nyiragongo eruption on 17 January 2002 destroyed a large part of the centre of Goma, a busy commercial centre in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Homes, schools, churches and businesses were ruined. An estimated 80,000 people – about 16,000 households – became homeless, and a very large number lost their workplace, their employment and their income, as well as assets and savings. The aid response, both by the UN and NGOs, focused on this loss of shelter, and defined entitlement to assistance according to its loss. But the most damaging loss was not to people’s homes, but to their livelihoods. What they needed was not commodities but cash.

The aid response

As aid responses go, Goma was not badly served. Many UN and NGO bodies, though often themselves affected by the destruction (UNICEF lost a warehouse full of medicines and school supplies worth $700,000), were already in place in Goma, and several new agencies came in to help. After a few days, a system of joint UN and NGO coordination ‘commissions’ was well in place, notably for health, education and child protection, and food and non-food aid.

There was no immediate danger of starvation. Goma is well supplied with food, which is normally quite cheap; the problem was the money to buy it with. The town is a busy commercial centre, a hive of economic activity and the main point of entry for goods from the outside world for much of eastern Congo. Markets quickly reopened after the eruption, and supplies of vegetables and fruit were soon re-established. Despite this, agencies gave food, and the addition of food aid to the market depressed prices and impoverished those who were already selling in the market. Family kits, providing household items, were important and greatly needed, but everything in the kit could be bought in Goma.

Surprisingly, even the need for shelter was not as bad as feared, as most of the 80,000 displaced people moved in with relatives for the first few days. For this major and crucial need, only cash would do. Houses for rent were available, and those who had money rented rooms and space towards the west of the town. A significant population did find it difficult and temporary camps grew up in some of the untouched schools and church compounds, which later had to be evacuated as a major effort was made to restart education. This became a problem in itself, as agencies had become used to the convenience of doing distributions inside a compound, and were reluctant to stop supporting people in the schools.

The most obvious need was to re-establish Goma’s economy to enable people to be self-reliant again. But in the first days of the response, as the ‘aid machine’ swung into action, this was not even discussed. After a week or so, discussions began around rebuilding and the term ‘relancement de l’économie’ entered the vocabulary; I travelled to Nairobi to meet representatives of Habitat, UNESCO and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and UNDP sent an expert in income-generating activities, but no one was able to respond with the requisite urgency, and some of the projects discussed never happened. Nevertheless, it was abundantly clear that, after the eruption, the one thing the people of Goma needed was money. And that was the one thing aid agencies would not, indeed could not, give.

The fear of giving cash

New aid workers are warned by older and wiser colleagues never to give cash to beneficiaries. Complex justifications are developed. Some, like the fear of setting a precedent, might be more plausible than others, like ‘they’ll just spend it’ or ‘they’ll misuse it’. The fear of giving money is almost pathological among aid agencies, even though, or maybe because, it would be simpler and cheaper to give than any other form of help. No lorries or stores are needed, and the logistics are certainly simpler. Dropping $20 notes from a helicopter would stimulate trade and save an awful lot of food transport costs. It is arguable that losses would be no less than they are in massive food distributions.

While there may be genuine and well-founded fears around cash aid, there is only one real conclusion to be drawn: we do not believe what we say about working for the beneficiaries and responding to their expressed needs. If the beneficiaries tell us clearly, as they did, time and again in Goma, that what they needed was cash, why did aid agencies persist in giving them goods? It was no secret that they were going to sell the goods, and that the ensuing flood of cheap aluminium pots or plastic sheets would debase the local market and make things worse for small traders. Yet the aid community in Goma continued to hold to some moral high ground about giving cash.

The people of Goma were clearly right: only the flexibility of cash could solve all the various problems facing them. Yet aid workers persisted in treating people like children who could not be trusted with their pocket money. Families were made to line up for hours to collect meticulously counted and packaged items, and the length of the procedure alone led to frustration, and ultimately to temptation and impersonation. Who could ever tell that someone had gone round twice, or that a family was represented at three different distribution points? Or that the unpaid intermediary, called a ‘volunteer’ because agencies would not pay him, not because he really volunteered, was going to make sure he got paid one way or another?

If we had given money

There is abundant evidence from around the globe that post-disaster economies revive quickly if everyone has a little money to spend. People can then spend it according to their own priorities and needs, something which the aid world claims to support, and which is specifically mentioned in all its manuals and seminars.

Would the misuse of money in Goma have been any worse than the misuse of goods? Exactly the same problems of identification and duplication would have occurred. Perhaps goods should have been given only to women, as at one point UNICEF had decided to do, or only to children, or only through churches.

But perhaps the aid community could be radical and say that people, especially adults, have a right to misuse their cash. If it circulates in the economy somewhere then it is doing its job. Money does not even have to be given free (though the food, pots and sheets were). Work projects could have satisfied the work ethic. There was a lot of lava to clear from the airport runway, for instance; there were roads to be reopened. Eventually, some of this was done. In particular, a huge school rebuilding programme generated budgets, employment and an explosion of small workshops making desks and chairs. The economic activity which the programme revived, based on carpenters and builders, sent a buzz through the whole town and demonstrated clearly what a difference the reintroduction of wages made to the economy.


Why was there was such a gulf between what aid agencies were giving and what people needed to allow them to return to everyday life and livelihoods – something which they very clearly said they wanted? There was overwhelming evidence that, within a day or two, the only value of another plastic sheet or another cooking-pot was in its sale. Why, then, did agencies continue to supply these items, even when it was obvious that they had become currency, and a debased one at that, as the continuing supply of new sheets and pots reduced their sale value to virtually zero and impoverished the people who normally sold them? Why did aid agencies ignore all their rhetoric about responding to the needs of people, and just give what they thought the people needed, not what they said they wanted? Could the clue be in the agency stickers plastering every aid vehicle in Goma, and the agency logos everywhere? Could it be that we were satisfying our needs as organisations, rather than people’s needs as beneficiaries?

Barry Sesnanwas head of the UNICEF Office in Goma and Provincial Humanitarian Coordinator for the UN at the time of the Nyiragongo eruption. He is currently working for UNDP in Ituri, DRC.

References and further reading

David Peppiatt, John Mitchell and Penny Holzmann, Cash Transfers in Emergencies: Evaluating Benefits and Assessing Risks, Network Paper 35 (London: ODI, 2001).

G. Saunders, Housing, Lives and Livelihoods: Lessons in Post-Disaster Assistance from Goma, unpublished case study, 2002.

Carlo de Hennin and Patricia Kormoss, Independent Evaluation of DEC Goma Crisis Appeal (Aachen: GFE Consulting, March 2003),; and

The Sphere Project, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, revised edition, 2004.