Insights from our evaluation of the world’s largest humanitarian cash transfer

OPM, in partnership with Development Analytics, recently concluded our mid-term evaluation of the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN).


This post shares an outline of key programme characteristics and take-away points from our evaluation of ESSN. The full report can be found on the World Food Programme website. This article represents the view of its author and OPM.

An innovative transfer marrying humanitarian principles with national delivery systems

The ESSN is the world’s largest humanitarian cash transfer, in terms of value and beneficiary numbers. It serves 1.4 million out–of-camp refugees in Turkey, disbursing TL120 (approximately $22) per person per month in a highly innovative way. In contrast to standard humanitarian cash transfers, it uses government systems to deliver the transfer to refugee households. Turkey is hosting nearly four million refugees and contributes significant financial and human resources to the ESSN. This is aligned with Grand Bargain principles, stipulating that humanitarian relief should use and strengthen host country delivery systems rather than setting up parallel ones. 

Even within one programme, one can marry different options of shock responsiveness, depending on each actor’s comparative advantage, be it piggybacking on the national system or aligning to it (as explored in our typology of shock responsiveness). We find that some elements of the transfer, in particular managing applications and running the applicant database, rely on the national system, while other elements, such as the rationale behind the transfer amount, monitoring and evaluation and beneficiary communication are managed by humanitarian agencies. Some elements, such as the final transfer amount, are a compromise between both. Using humanitarian principles of basic needs would result in a higher transfer amount compared to what is received by poor host community households. The final amount is the outcome of a negotiation between the desire to follow humanitarian principles and consideration of fairness and respect in relation to welfare systems in a host country.

Targeting in humanitarian context is difficult

We find that the targeting mechanism is mildly progressive with 48% of the transfer going to the poorest 40%. However, the homogenous character of the population makes it very difficult to differentiate between poor and non-poor households. The very concept of this differentiation is questionable in a humanitarian context. Most households are poor or hover around the poverty line. The difference between poor and non-poor families amounts to a few dollars a month and families move in and out of poverty. The demographic targeting criteria allowed a rapid scale up of the programme, but are a blunt instrument to differentiate in a homogenous population. Receiving the benefit often means that beneficiary households become better off than non-beneficiaries.

National systems afford scale but may exclude the most vulnerable

Due to its scale, the ESSN is based on households applying for the transfer: households have to compile a number of documents and formally apply for the benefit at Turkish welfare offices (the Social Assistance and Solidarity Foundation). It would be unfeasible to muster an army of social workers large enough to assess close to two million beneficiaries within a year. However, refugees who cannot obtain the required documents are more likely to be vulnerable and more likely to be excluded. Further, the cash transfer application currently does not systematically link applicants to protection and social care services (such as disability services, sexual- and gender-based violence protection services or psychosocial counselling). This is an instance where a weakness in the national system is replicated in the ESSN, though the implementing agencies do actively work on such referral. Turkish citizens in need of both cash assistance and social care have to apply at two different service centres.

While government infrastructure offers scale in terms of national coverage and delivery systems, humanitarian actors have a role in liaising with government to advocate for the inclusion of the most vulnerable, rather than being involved in direct delivery. As a practical example, humanitarian actors ended up playing a major role in terms of connecting applicants to the transfer by providing ‘handholding’ support throughout the application process as well as one-off assistance in case of exceptional need and ad hoc referrals of protection cases (see section 2.4.1 on p.42 of the report).

Image credit: World Food Programme

Area of expertise