Why you should care

Because the best way to help people is to let them decide what they need.

There are 20 million refugees in the word today, according to UNHCR. They hail from a myriad of different places, from the bombed streets of Aleppo to small villages in South Sudan. The one thing they need — besides a new home and possibly a homeland — is not blankets, food or tents.

They need debit cards.

The debit cards wouldn’t replace humanitarian aid, of course, but instead be the vehicle for it. Rather than having aid agencies decide how much cooking oil, soap and yards of fabric refugees need, they’d load cash — an allowance, if you will — onto the card so that refugees could manage the resources as they see fit. Maybe they prefer couscous to flour, or phone credit instead of another blanket or baby formula to shoes.

This system has multiple advantages. For starters, it helps refugees get what they actually need, not what aid agencies think they need. As hard as donors try, no one knows better than the refugees themselves. Besides that, handouts tend to destroy local markets, while purchasing credits tend to bulwark them. Think of a rice farmer in a disaster zone: He can’t compete against free rice and, after a while, he’ll probably go out of business. But give his customers a subsidy, and he might get his farm back on track again.

Some aid agencies have already experimented with credit; the model of one organization, Give Directly, is based on the very idea. Now big organizations, like the World Food Program, are testing the scheme. In both Jordan and Lebanon, where 1,835,840 Syrian refugees are living outside camps, the WFP hands out credit cards to refugees, loading them with $40 a month. Refugees can use them to fill their carts with whatever they need at local supermarkets. Governments may barely tolerate the presence of refugees, but there’s no denying that allowing them to buy directly from local retailers is a huge economic boost.

Some critics believe refugees wouldn’t spend the money wisely or appropriately — or that local stores might gouge them. That’s a risk, of course, but then, there are losses in every system, including handout aid, which often ends up in marketplaces anyway. The more logical concern is whether local markets have “time to adapt,” says Alex Theran, country director of IsraAID, an organization supporting refugees in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. A sudden flow of money could make prices spike for locals, which would only add to their resentment of refugees. Obviously, vouchers won’t work as well in places without supermarkets or ATMs. But they could work well in Greece and the Balkans, where thousands of refugees are currently trapped. “It is a very creative solution, specially for refugees who are scattered,” says Gilles Carbonnier, professor of international economics at the Graduate Institute of Geneva.

Last but not least, the credit card system helps restore refugees’ dignity. Refugees have such little say in where they’re living. We may as well give them a choice in what they eat for dinner.

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