Adapting cash assistance during COVID-19

As the impact of COVID-19 was being felt across developed countries, every Medair programme was adapting its approach to prevent the spread of coronavirus in communities already affected by crisis.

The pandemic forced our teams worldwide to reconsider how they interact with communities.

In Afghanistan, cash-for-work activities were set to begin in the Central Highlands in April. People would have needed to work in close proximity as they built trenches and dams to prevent flash floods as the winter snow melted high in the mountains and to help the soil retain precious water so crops could grow in the spring. To protect the health of staff and participants, the difficult decision was taken to postpone these activities.


Cancelling the activities entirely would have affected the participants who were looking forward to several months of income. Prices for food and household essentials had begun to soar due to COVID-19-related shortages.

The project team in Afghanistan switched to ‘unconditional cash assistance’ to ensure families could still receive the income they were anticipating. Once the activities can be done safely again, the ‘cash-for-work’ plans will proceed and bring sustainable benefit to the whole community.

Cash assistance as a form of humanitarian aid has grown popular because of its flexibility and proven effectiveness in meeting people’s needs during emergencies. Providing cash upholds the dignity of the individual, allowing each person or family to prioritise their biggest needs and decide how best to meet them. When resources are available locally, cash assistance can stimulate the economy and help communities get back on their feet quicker.

It’s for these reasons that Medair has used cash assistance as a chosen response in several emergencies—either through a transactional approach like cash-for-work, cash-for-food, or cash-for-health projects, or simply unconditional multi-purpose cash assistance.

Dominika Bednarova, Medair’s Global Cash and Humanitarian Innovation Advisor, says cash-for-work projects are a ‘win-win’ for communities:

“Not only do cash-for-work projects provide income for participants, but entire communities benefit. For example, through such a project a community could build a bridge, repair infrastructure after a disaster, or build a school. That’s the core of any cash-for-work initiative—it has to benefit the whole community.”

In DR Congo, a recently completed cash-for-work project has helped a remote community access medical care and humanitarian aid more easily, thanks to a new bridge. Previously, the only way to reach health care services in the nearest town, Hombo, was to cross a dangerous, makeshift bridge over a flowing river. It was the perfect opportunity for Medair to apply our infrastructure expertise, and implement a holistic and inclusive project by adding the cash-for-work element.

Connie Smith, Deputy Country Director in DR Congo, says the team worked closely with community members to include the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the community.

“Together with the leaders, we decided who would participate and whether those people would work for a longer time, or a larger number of people would work for a shorter time and share the financial benefits.”

Connie has seen how the additional income has helped families get ahead. “Generally, the participants use the cash to pay off debts, pay school fees, and buy food. Some even used it to get married and enjoy a celebration.”


Convinced, Connie hopes to expand to more cash-for-work projects in DR Congo in the future. “I hope to do even more projects like this. It is a great way to involve the local community.”

According to The Cash Learning Partnership Network, cash is being prioritised by governments and humanitarian organisations across many contexts because it allows aid to continue while reducing the risk of transmission. It also acts as an economic stimulus, which is an approach being taken by many developed nations as well.

Until the current pandemic is under control and communities can resume normal life, Medair continues to adapt programmes and examine the opportunities for cash assistance as the way forward for people who are struggling with crisis in addition to COVID-19.

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