The cash debate in Lebanon

March 31, 2017
Amy Louise Keith
Through her ATM card issued by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Joweher monthly receives 175 US dollars that she can use to make purchases for her most urgent priorities.

Since 2014, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), several NGOs and the Lebanese Red Cross have been providing monthly multi-purpose cash (MPC) assistance to economically vulnerable Syrian refugees via ATM cards. In Lebanon, ‘multi-purpose cash assistance’ is an unrestricted, monthly cash transfer for households that meet the targeting criteria. In some cases, such as locations where no ATMs are available, other mechanisms may be used to provide MPC assistance. Since 2013, the World Food Programme (WFP) has been providing monthly cash-based assistance to vulnerable Syrian refugees in the form of e-voucher bank cards that can be used in its network of 490 contracted shops. UNHCR, UNICEF and NGOs have other cash-based assistance programmes, for instance for seasonal, education or protection needs, which also use ATM cards. This article focuses specifically on MPC and food e-vouchers. In December 2014, six international NGOs formed the Lebanon Cash Consortium (LCC) to bring together their MPC assistance programmes.

WFP and LCC have used a common payment card for their respective food e-voucher and MPC assistance since January 2015, which meant that refugees who were receiving food from WFP and MPC from LCC could use the same card in shops to purchase their food and in ATMs to withdraw their cash. In late 2016, WFP, UNHCR, LCC and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) rolled out one common payment card for all of their respective cash-based assistance. The platform for managing this common card is called the Lebanon One Unified Inter-Agency System for E-Cards (LOUISE). It includes a common system for issuing, activating/deactivating and distributing cards, and will eventually also have a common information management portal, call centre and monitoring and evaluation approach. For targeting MPC and food e-voucher beneficiaries, the LOUISE agencies use the ‘desk formula’ that WFP and MPC actors agreed in mid-2016. Other agencies will also be able to join the LOUISE platform if they agree to the terms and costs. Under the LOUISE platform, each agency still has its own independent programme, but the delivery of these different programs is through the one card system.

In December 2016, the European Commission Directorate General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) jointly presented an approach that proposes having one lead agency manage one single, unrestricted monthly cash transfer to cover the basic needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon (including food). The two institutions are looking for a full programme of improvements with respect to monthly cash-based assistance, with one payment card, one management platform, one targeting system, one call hotline, one appeals system and one referral mechanism, as well as third-party independent monitoring and evaluation (M&E). For cash-based assistance in 2017, ECHO and DFID have stated that they will award two separate contracts: one for the delivery of assistance, and one for independent M&E.

Since ECHO and DFID presented their new approach for cash in Lebanon, discussions in-country and globally have focused on their proposal to have one lead agency using one delivery platform versus the LOUISE delivery platform. However, a delivery platform is just a means to an end. What we should be discussing instead is the end we are aiming for: a coherent, sustainable, cost-efficient and – most importantly – accountable system to meet the basic needs of vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon through cash-based assistance.

The ECHO/DFID approach includes not only assistance delivery through one lead agency, but also specific proposals and structures to improve and ensure accountability and transparency and achieve a fully harmonised package of assistance. The LOUISE platform is multi-agency, but it is not clear exactly how the LOUISE approach would improve on the status quo with respect to these three key issues. Thus, as we assess the way forward for cash-based assistance in Lebanon in 2017, we should reflect on where things stand.

Let’s start with some facts. MPC assistance in Lebanon is currently provided by multiple, independent agencies and consortia (the largest being UNHCR and the LCC), using standardised approaches under the coordination of the Basic Assistance Working Group. MPC programmes collectively provide $175 per family per month for approximately 22% of Syrian refugees, delivering a total of $105 million to beneficiaries in 2016. However, the majority of cash-based assistance in Lebanon is not provided through MPC programmes. The largest cash-based assistance response in Lebanon is the WFP food e-voucher programme, which provides $27 per person per month for approximately 65%–70% of Syrian refugees. With $225m reaching food e-voucher beneficiaries in 2016, WFP’s programme is larger than the combined MPC programmes and also far exceeds the $85m that DFID and ECHO are proposing for cash-based assistance in 2017.


A key aspect of the ECHO/DFID approach is full harmonisation between MPC and food e-vouchers. ECHO and DFID have proposed merging MPC and food e-vouchers into one monthly unrestricted cash transfer. This harmonisation is an important response-wide issue because: 1. monthly cash-based assistance (whether via e-vouchers or MPC) provides fundamental support to a family’s overall available income; 2. lack of income to cover the costs of goods and services is one of the main reasons why families are unable to meet their needs across multiple sectors; and 3. families will balance income and costs according to their own priorities and needs. The response needs to look at this monthly assistance as one whole, because families use available income as one whole. For example, if a severely poor family is less food insecure this may be because they are prioritising their available income on food rather than on other basic needs, such as hygiene, education and healthcare. Therefore, if we were to focus more on food insecurity to determine eligibility, a severely poor family that prioritises healthcare could be eligible for food e-vouchers, while an equally poor family that prioritises food/nutrition might not be. In Lebanon, distinguishing between the MPC and food e-voucher programmes – in eligibility or delivery – is not necessary for the refugees; if it is necessary at all, it is only for the sake of humanitarian actors’ reporting, mandates or grant obligations.

The relationship between food e-vouchers and MPC, and how they might be harmonised, has been the subject of much inter-agency discussion in Lebanon since early 2014. Three harmonised ‘tiers’ of assistance were proposed early on: food e-vouchers and MPC for the most vulnerable, food e-vouchers alone for the less vulnerable, and no monthly cash-based assistance for the least vulnerable. Over the past three years, there has been considerable progress towards this harmonised structure. Notably, in mid-2014 agencies delivering MPC agreed on a common assistance package (the monthly amount of $175 per family). In line with the three-tier concept, this amount assumes that all families receiving MPC are also receiving food e-vouchers, i.e. that the most vulnerable are receiving one full package of support. However, despite ongoing progress, the most economically vulnerable refugees are still not systematically eligible for both MPC and food e-vouchers, and other key aspects of a harmonised structure are still not in place. The costs vs. benefits of restricted cash-based assistance (food e-vouchers), unrestricted cash-based assistance (MPC), or a combined operational modality for providing a harmonised package of monthly cash-based assistance is a related and important debate, but is not the subject of this article.


Targeting of food e-vouchers and MPC has been a hotly debated topic in Lebanon since the targeting of food assistance began in the autumn of 2013 (prior to that food assistance was provided to all Syrian refugees). Vulnerability-based targeting requires a definition of vulnerability and an accurate way to measure this vulnerability to determine eligibility for assistance. Excellent progress has been made in Lebanon on harmonising the tools for accurately measuring vulnerability (e.g. the common household profiling questionnaire), and while MPC actors have harmonised their vulnerability definition based on poverty (measured through household expenditure), one ongoing sticking-point has been the use of poverty to define eligibility for food e-vouchers. As a result, MPC actors and WFP still use different (although increasingly similar) definitions of vulnerability for targeting MPC and food e-vouchers, respectively. In mid-2016, MPC actors and WFP adopted a new ‘desk formula’ for targeting. This formula uses non-economic variables from UNHCR’s refugee database to predict a household’s monthly expenditure per capita, and then ranks households based on this predicted expenditure level. As MPC actors were already using household expenditure to define vulnerability, this formula was a natural fit. WFP has been using this formula together with other factors to determine eligibility for food e-vouchers. The adoption of the desk formula by both MPC actors and WFP was a  huge step in the direction of harmonised targeting, and the hope is that by the second quarter of 2017 – after over three years of debate – all actors will use the desk formula in the same way to determine eligibility for both MPC and food e-voucher assistance. This should mean that all severely economically vulnerable families who are eligible for MPC will finally also be systematically eligible for food e-vouchers.

Appeals and referrals

The common appeal process for MPC is still under development in the Basic Assistance Working Group. The WFP referral process for food e-vouchers is in place, but needs strengthening (especially with respect to the transparency of process and decisions). There is currently no common appeal or referral process across MPC and food e-voucher assistance. This is long overdue, and necessary to ensure that severely vulnerable families who fall through the cracks of the targeting process and formula are systematically able to access both MPC and food e-vouchers.

Monitoring and evaluation

A common post-distribution monitoring (PDM) questionnaire for MPC actors was presented in the Basic Assistance Working Group in December 2016. WFP has its own PDM system for food e-vouchers. So far, monitoring and evaluation of the overall outcomes and impact of the full monthly cash-based assistance package (MPC plus food e-vouchers) has not been harmonised. Some level of M&E harmonisation is planned under the LOUISE platform (at least with respect to process monitoring). The DFID/ECHO approach proposes comprehensive M&E improvements, with the assistance delivery agency doing process monitoring, and an independent third party separately contracted for broader M&E and accountability.


To date, harmonisation and coordination efforts have been undertaken voluntarily, with larger agencies and programmes naturally having more leeway to take unilateral programme decisions and influence (or disregard) the collective approach. As mentioned above, MPC assistance currently comprises multiple, independent agency programmes, and falls under the Basic Assistance Working Group. Food e-vouchers are a single-agency programme under WFP and fall under the Food Security Sector Working Group. Although joint technical working groups have been convened on specific issues, there is no overarching governance or coordination mechanism that brings MPC and food e-voucher assistance together. Both the ECHO/DFID approach and the LOUISE platform include governance bodies, but in both cases it is not clear what authority the governance body will have over programme quality and accountability, how the governance body will interact with existing coordination working groups or how it will work with cash-based assistance programmes operating outside of its platform.


Regardless of the future delivery platform(s) for MPC and food e-voucher assistance, there is a clear need for mechanisms – such as third-party monitoring and multi-stakeholder governance – to ensure accountability, transparency and quality programming across the full package of monthly cash-based assistance. NGOs in Lebanon began raising issues around the transparency and accountability of both the food e-voucher programme and the larger MPC programmes as far back as 2013, when targeting was first initiated. Key questions have included:

  • What are the criteria and processes through which beneficiaries are identified for exclusion from or inclusion in assistance?
  • What status do refugees have to have in order to be eligible for assistance?
  • How are eligibility and programme parameters being communicated to refugees?
  • How are beneficiary lists and vulnerability scoring cross-checked?
  • How are ‘ineligible’ or ‘removed’ beneficiaries verified, and how can they appeal or reapply if their situation changes?
  • Who is falling through the cracks of the targeting formula/scoring and how are errors in the underlying database affecting scores?
  • What is the process and timeline for scoring cases, and what is the script for running the formula in a beneficiary database?

In past years, decisions that affect the most basic support to hundreds of thousands of refugees – and thus affect the entire response – have been taken unilaterally by the agencies with the largest programmes, without consultation with and very limited explanation to other response actors or refugees. There are few opportunities for other response actors to cross-check MPC and food e-voucher targeting and effectiveness, and few (if any) fora in which to address concerns on behalf of beneficiaries. In addition, communication to both beneficiaries and other response actors about eligibility for, changes to, complaints about, and other aspects of both the MPC and food e-voucher programmes has left much to be desired.


Cash is a modality: a means to an end. But unlike other forms of assistance, cash-based assistance puts beneficiaries more in control of the ends, and thus does not necessarily fit neatly into the sector silos of our humanitarian architecture. Cash-based assistance enables crisis-affected people to buy what they decide they need most, rather than what we think they need or should have. Our collective approach to cash-based assistance should seek to help them do this as effectively as possible, and in ways that are easier and make more sense to them, rather than sticking to the ways that make most sense for us. Finding a sustainable, coherent, cost-efficient and accountable way to deliver ongoing monthly cash-based assistance in a protracted, non-camp refugee crisis is an enormous challenge. Agencies providing cash-based assistance in Lebanon have taken considerable strides towards meeting this challenge. However, it has taken over three years to achieve the present level of partial harmonisation. Ensuring accountable, efficient and high-quality programming across the full package of monthly cash-based assistance – in a way that is as coherent as possible for refugees – will require us to think much further outside agency mandates, organisational interests and sector silos going forward.

Amy Louise Keith served as the Country Coordinator of the Lebanon Humanitarian INGO Forum (LHIF) between October 2013 and January 2017. She has over 15 years of experience in humanitarian response, early recovery and disaster risk reduction programming, and holds a Masters of Public Administration (MPA) from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).


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