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Cash and Vouchers

WFP delivers hundreds of thousands of tons of food each year, but, increasingly, we give hungry people cash or vouchers to buy food for themselves.

Cash transfers provide money to people who are struggling to provide food for their families; vouchers can be redeemed for food items or “spent” in selected shops. They are used to tackle hunger in places where there is plenty of food in the marketplace but where poor people cannot afford to buy it.

Cash and vouchers can sometimes cut down the costs of transporting and storing food. They benefit the local economy, because beneficiaries spend the money in local markets. People often prefer cash and vouchers to traditional food assistance, because they offer more choice and variety.

WFP is using innovative ways to deliver the assistance, such as scratch cards or “e-vouchers” delivered to mobile phones by text message.

Cash and Vouchers - Stories

BAMBASI REFUGEE CAMP, Ethiopia — Sadia Mohammed is no stranger to hardship. Two years ago, she fled Sudan's conflict-torn Blue Nile State with her husband and six children.  

"Houses were burning and there was shooting," 33-year-old Sadia recalls of the fighting in her home town of Geissen. "We had to leave." 

Today, Sadia has found peace in western Ethiopia, where she is among roughly 14,000 Sudanese living at Bambasi refugee camp. Although she’s glad to have safety, Sadia and her family also live in limbo — unable, for now, to go home and restart their lives. 

Like many of the half-a-million refugees WFP supports in Ethiopia, Sadia's survival depends on monthly humanitarian assistance, along with the vegetables she grows in a small garden. Until recently, WFP's support in Ethiopia consisted entirely of food rations and nutritional supplements for the malnourished.

But today, Sadia is part of a groundbreaking shift in WFP's refugee operations here, as the agency moves from traditional food distributions to a mix of food and cash where appropriate. Now, WFP is expanding this initiative, thanks to a EUR 2.5 million (US$3.4 million) grant from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). 

“Ethiopia was the first place in the world where WFP started distributing cash alongside food to refugees in camps,” says WFP’s Country Director Abdou Dieng. “And we are seeing that even these modest sums of money are improving people's diets and self-esteem. With strong support from donors like ECHO, we plan to expand the effort so all refugees in Ethiopia can benefit from both cash and food.”

Support from ECHO and Finland

With support from ECHO and Finland, the first cash-and-food pilots began in 2013 for Somali refugees at the Sheder and Aw Barre camps, in Ethiopia's eastern Somalia region, in close collaboration with the government’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. 

This May, the programme was launched for Sudanese refugees at Bambasi camp, in the western Benishangul-Gumuz region and also rolled out in Aysaita refugee camp hosting around 9,100 Eritrean refugees in the region of Afar.

“We have seen the first results, which have proven to be most effective,” says ECHO Technical Advisor Jacob Asens. “Refugees are very happy with this new initiative and their diet is more diversified – which is one of the programme’s objectives. ECHO hopes the positive initial results will be confirmed this year so that cash transfers can become a reality in refugee camps in Ethiopia in the very near future.”

At Bambasi, Sadia and participating refugees continue receiving the same amount of WFP-provided pulses, vegetable oil, fortified blended food, sugar and salt as they did before. But under the new initiative, WFP replaces roughly half the cereal ration with 100 Ethiopian Birr (about $5) per person, per month. 

"The cash allows me to buy extra food like cereals, vegetables and coffee," says Sadia. “Perhaps later on, I will buy milk and maybe meat.”

Positive results

Sadia isn't the only refugee praising the cash-and-food initiative. Many were pleased at the dietary diversity and greater food choices that cash provides. And women, especially, said the money enhanced their dignity and negotiating power with local traders. 

At Bambasi camp, Situ Nasir and her husband Indris Abdela are pleased to be able to shop at the local market—just as they did back home. "We like to be able to select our own food and take just what they need," said Situ, who says she is the main decision-maker on how the cash is spent. 

For 36-year-old mother of five Teyib Gotsi, the cash means she can buy meat and fresh vegetables, and pay for basic expenses. That's a big change from just two years ago, when the family scrounged for food, water and shelter after fleeing their home in Blue Nile State. The cash even allows Teyib to plan ahead; she will save part of it as a cushion against future hardships. 

And refugees aren’t the only ones benefitting. The money they spend is helping to boost the local economy and putting smiles on shopkeepers’ faces as well. 

This story was written thanks to inputs from Aschalew Abate from WFP Ethiopia


WFP continues to expand cash programmes in refugee camps throughout Ethiopia thanks to the support from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). In Bambasi, refugees like Sadia explains what it means for them and their families.

Anjuara Begum, her husband and three children live in Gaibandha, northern Bangladesh – a land of mighty rivers. Every year, during the rainy season, the rivers swell and take with them blocks of land – agricultural fields, roads, even small settlements. In 2003, Anjuara and her family lost their home to the floods.


"The ground started breaking away during the night. In the dark, we had to move our house and everything we owned,” Anjuara recalls with a deep sigh. The family still lives close to the river on government land just next to an embankment, the only space landless families can occupy without objections.

After the move the family struggled: “My husband became a day labourer, but it was tough to get a job every day. When he didn’t find work, we sometimes had no food for us and the kids,” Anjuara recalls. But her face lights up as she remembers the day, almost three years ago now, when her life took a turn for the better: "I was sitting on the embankment along with some of my neighbours, those who are jobless like me. Suddenly a stranger walked up and asked us if there are any poor people living in the area. Later we learned the man was from WFP.”

“He offered us to sit together with other locals, including the upazila chairman and other leaders. During the meeting, we wrote down the names of all local people in three categories: rich, poor and ultra-poor. Everyone agreed on the list, and then we, the ultra-poor people, got a chance to work on projects that protect our community.”

Like her, thousands of people living in north-western flood prone areas and along the southern coast of Bangladesh are particularly vulnerable to natural calamities. Under the Enhancing Resilience to Natural Disasters and the Effects of Climate Change programme, the Government of Bangladesh’s Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) and WFP, with support from NGOs, engages 80,000 ultra-poor rural women and men in cash and food for work and training to increase their resilience to future disasters. Together, they repair and reinforce embankments, raise roads, excavate canals and ponds and elevate the ground around their houses in order to protect their communities from flooding, water-logging and increasing salinity, and to boost agricultural production.

From 2011 to 2012, Anjuara and her ultra-poor neighbours repaired and raised a road in their neighbourhood as part of a cash/food for work project. Now this road not only improves access to schools, markets and health centres in the area but also serves as a dam, protecting their community and fields from flooding.

During the rainy season, when earthworks are too difficult, Anjuara and her neighbours participated in training sessions on disaster preparedness and response, hygiene, sanitation and nutrition. In exchange for their time and labour, they received nutritious food rations from WFP and the equivalent in cash from the Government of Bangladesh.

In 2013, Anjuara and 18,000 women across Bangladesh became the first participants to start a third programme year. In order to further strengthen families’ resilience to natural disaster, WFP used lessons learned from the successful Food Security for the Ultra Poor project which helped 30,000 women and their families rise out of extreme poverty.

Through NGO partners, WFP organized trainings to help the women identify activities that match their skills and local demand, and develop a business plan. They then received a cash grant to invest, and a monthly allowance to help support their families while they focused on making their businesses successful.

In the trainings, Anjuara also learned to invest in diverse assets to ensure her family still has some income even if one of them is damaged. She applied these lessons immediately, using her 12,000 taka cash grant, combined with savings from the cash/food for work project she participated in, to purchase a bull and a rickshaw.

For six months, a monthly allowance of 500 taka helps Anjuara take care of her family’s needs while she fattens the bull to sell at a profit, and her husband builds up a rickshaw transport service. The animal is already paying dividends as the dung can be sold as fuel.

The older two of Anjuara’s three children are now studying in primary school. “I am so happy that I can send my children to school and that I can buy them the school clothing and study materials they need” says Anjuara. “And they always eat three meals a day now,” she adds proudly.

Her new-found financial security even encouraged Anjuara to make big plans for the future: “With the revenues I make from bull fattening, I think I will be able to buy a small piece of homestead land – then we can finally move away from the river.”


Resilience to natural disasters has many aspects – a home safe from flooding, the knowledge and skills to prepare for and cope with disasters, and the financial security to recover and rebuild in the aftermath of a shock. In Bangladesh, WFP tackles all these issues with a comprehensive programme.

GAZA – Naifa, a 47-year-old mother from Khan Younis in southern Gaza was cut off from her family’s farmland following the blockade in 2007.

“We were living a decent life before with a stable income. All of a sudden we had to adjust," recalls Naifa whose elderly husband cannot work and she shoulders the responsibility of providing for her husband and five children.

Losing the stable income and the family’s food basket, they depend almost entirely on WFP food vouchers that helps Naifa buy fresh, nutritious produce for her family. "I would be begging on the streets if it weren't for the food vouchers,” she says.

However, it is not always the food that matters. It is what you do with the food. That is why Naifa is among 1000 women participating in WFP’s innovative nutrition awareness pilot programme in Gaza that helps women directly address the “double burden” of obesity and malnutrition in their communities.

WFP Palestine’s Nutrition awareness pilot targets women who receive WFP’s food vouchers and are pregnant or have young children. The six-month-long session feature interactive discussions and presentations on diet, hygiene, cooking, purchasing healthy food on a budget, and caring for infants.

Naifa says the programme has helped her realize how crucial her role is for the family. She used to deep-fry food in vegetable oil every day. Now – thanks to her nutrition knowledge and the healthy food she can buy with the vouchers – her family’s food habits have changed dramatically. “Now I am even giving friends and family advice on what they should or should not eat," she says. "I am looking forward to the sessions every week.”

Malnutrition in Palestine

In a country where households spend more than 50 percent of their monthly income on food, high food prices make it difficult for most families to buy healthy and nutritious foods. According to a recent study by the Palestinian Ministry of Health, more than half of children between ages 12-15 months – as well as 28 percent of pregnant women – suffer from moderate anaemia caused by iron deficiency.

Traditional food assistance with the right foods at the right time can provide just part of a long-term solution; good hygiene, healthy cooking and eating habits and other behavioural factors are crucial as well.

Although WFP’s nutrition awareness programme reaches only a fraction of people receiving food voucher assistance, with food insecure households averaging nearly seven people, the impact will be far greater than the participants alone.

“Understanding the needs of women is critical to achieving a long-term impact,” says WFP Country Director Pablo Recalde. “When it comes to tackling food insecurity and malnutrition, women are the key-holders of success. Supporting women and girls goes a long way in terms of supporting an entire community.”

Micronutrient deficiencies and obesity - the "double burden" of malnutrition facing many developing countries - are interlinked with poverty and are closely related to access to healthy, nutritious food, dietary habits and physical activity. WFP is tackling malnutrition in Palestine that is mostly a result of families’ inability to buy healthy and nutritious foods due to high food prices.

WFP/William Reina

Embera Woman Redeems a WFP Voucher

A displaced woman and her son of the Embera-Katío indigenous group in Pawando redeems her food voucher at supermarket Exito in the city of Monteria, Cordoba. This WFP voucher programme in Colombia is funded by ECHO (the European Commission - Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection).

WFP/William Reina

At the Cashier of a Partner Supermarket

Indigenous family from Pawando, Cordoba, redeeming their voucher at the cashier. Some of these families do not read nor write, therefore they use their fingerprints to acknowledge the receipt of the food products. Through the WFP partnership with the private sector, beneficiaries redeem their vouchers at supermarket chains Exito and YEP.

WFP/Zaida Marquez

In Line to Purchase Fresh Nutritious Food

This young woman is waiting in line to redeem her "virtual voucher" at supermarket YEP in Puerto Asis, Putumayo (southern Colombia). Throughtout the country, the "virtual vouchers" were assigned to approximately 1,000 families who had been recently displaced within the past 2 years.


WFP/Zaida Marquez

Signing the Bill, Redeeming the "Virtual Voucher"

And now she is signing her receipt. Reedeming the WFP "virtual vouchers" is simple. Through this scheme, the ID numbers of selected participants and a list of food products are previously logged into the supermarkets’ system. After picking her food products, she only provided her national ID number to the cashier, passed the products, and signed the receipt. Now she is ready to go home.

WFP/Zaida Marquz

Accompanying Mommy to Buy Food

This little girl came all the way from Caicedo, a small town near Puerto Asis, in Putumayo (Southern Colombia). The fun part of the visit to Puerto Asis was the ride in the shoping cart while her mom looked for nutritious food products to redeem her WFP "virtual vouchers".


WFP/Zaida Marquez

Mother and Son

This woman and her baby are waiting for a WFP staff member to provide some cash to pay for the bus ride to her hometown of Caicedo. This additional aid helped her and other beneficiaries leave Puerto Asis with their groceries, which included grains, meat, eggs, cereals, vegetables, fruits, chocolate, pasta and other nutritious foods.

WFP/Zaida Marquez

Choosing Fresh Fruits

This man is a native of the Northern coast of Colombia, but he now lives nearby Puerto Asis, located in Southern Colombia. Even after having to traverse the country due to forced displacements, he still keeps a smile on his face. He is come here to exchange his WFP vouchers.

WFP/Zaida Marquez

The EU in Puerto Asis, Putumayo

Marina waited patienly to redeem her assigned WFP "virtual voucher". This "invaluable assistance", as Marina put it, was possible due to a contribution by ECHO and the people of the European Union.

WFP/Zaida Marquez

Sweet Passion Fruit

This youngster accompanied his mother to redeem their "virtual voucher". He asked her to get lots of sweet passion fruit at the supermarket, as it is his favorite. In his eagerness, he began eating them long before they went to the cashier.

WFP/William Reina

Ready to Return Home

This woman waits for the bus to return to her home in Tierralta, Cordoba. She and more than 100 members of her community spent the day in the department's capital, Monteria, redeeming their WFP "virtual vouchers".


In the first week of February 2014, WFP launched massive voucher redemption events in 4 municipalities in Colombia. This photo gallery records the events in Monteria (Cordoba), involving recently displaced Embera-Katío indigenous families, and in Puerto Asis (Putumayo), where more than 300 families benefitted from this voucher programme.