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The central role of cash transfer programmes in the response to the urban disaster in Haiti: lessons learned
Domitille KAUFFMANN – April 2012

Now that we are in the transition phase, it seems essential to identify and share lessons and good practices from the humanitarian response to the Haiti earthquake, and notably concerning cash transfer programmes which were central to the urban response. These lessons should be applied both to the new national programmes which are being implemented in Haiti, particularly the initiatives for the most vulnerable people and social protection programmes, and also to the contingency and response plans which are being developed to deal with the risk of new disasters.

A variety of cash transfer methods

The earthquake of 12 January 2010 hit Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas with full force. In these urban contexts, the population essentially depend on markets for their food and non-food needs. They also generally need to pay for their basic needs such as water, cooking fuel, and access to services like health, education and transport. The limits of classic food aid to respond to the scale of humanitarian needs in this largely monetised urban context [1] quickly became apparent and humanitarian organizations opted as early as January 2010 for cash transfer programmes. Preliminary studies of the Port-au-Prince markets had shown that, though seriously affected by the earthquake, they had the potential to respond to the needs of the communities affected by the disaster [2] These programmes were implemented on an even larger scale from the end of March 2010 when the Haitian government officially asked for all food distributions to stop and for a national Cash-For-Work (CFW) [3] The response to the earthquake therefore involved a variety of types of cash transfer programme: Cash-For-Work programmes, the distribution of food and non-food vouchers and direct cash donations (with or without conditions).

Coverage of a variety of needs

These cash transfer programmes made it possible to respond to a wide variety of needs at the household level in a number of sectors (food security, shelter, recapitalization, non-food items, repayment of debt linked to livelihoods, education, etc.). Christian Aid analysed that the beneficiaries of their direct unconditional donation programmes used 41% of the money distributed for health care, education, rent payment, debt repayment or reviving their small businesses. They underlined that this would not have been possible with in-kind aid or vouchers [4].

Identification of beneficiaries and vulnerabilities in urban environments

It was very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between vulnerabilities linked to the earthquake and the chronic poverty which existed before the disaster. Selection criteria in urban environments are more complex and tend to be less visible or verifiable than in rural areas [5], which highlighted the importance of working with local actors. In addition, a classic indicator like income is often too difficult to calculate to identify the most vulnerable families. Indeed, a lot of urban livelihoods depend on the informal economy and on day-to-day job opportunities and/or petty trade, without regular income. It was therefore necessary to identify other criteria for the selection of beneficiaries (e.g. indicators which measure the extent to which the primary needs of households have been satisfied and their access to basic services like Education and Health) [6].


[1] The urban population remains partly dependent on the transferral of food from their families living in rural areas and non-monetary exchanges are therefore not negligable.

[2] Emergency Market Mapping and Analysis(EMMA) February 2010.

[3] CFW projects had at least 500 000 beneficiaries in 2010. programme to be implemented.

[4] Christian Aid, Humanitarian Briefing Paper - Haiti: unconditional cash transfers - lessons learnt.

[5] Id.

[6] ACF. Etude sur la vulnérabilité urbaine à Port-au-Prince. Définition de critères de vulnérabilité pour la sélection des populations cibles des interventions Sécurité Alimentaire et Moyens d’existence, June-July 2011.