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Demystifying the Minimum Expenditure Basket

Reflections from the CALP Network and WFP’s joint webinar series on MEBs.

10 February 2021 — By Nathalie Klein, Nynne Warring

In El Salvador a participant of WFP’s Resilience and Climate Change Programme goes shopping at the local supermarket using the e-voucher she received as part of the programme.

Busting some common MEB myths

Are you mystified or motivated by the concept of minimum expenditure baskets (MEBs)? In this blog we reflect on the rich information and discussion points which emerged from a series of five ‘MEBinars’ organised by WFP and the CALP Network last October and November. The series consisted of five sessions, bringing together 760 attendants around the globe. Below, we took at some of the questions most likely to challenge us on this topic: what exactly is an MEB, how do we construct it, what can we use it for, and what are the issues to look out for?

The power of Minimum Expenditure Baskets

Led by the rising use of cash and vouchers in humanitarian assistance, the Minimum Expenditure Basket has become a central technical tool for practitioners around the world. While in essence a simple concept, it profoundly challenges our traditional, sector-based ways of working as humanitarians. This is because it considers a whole set of needs thereby pushing us beyond sectoral siloes and providing opportunities to connect with development support, including social protection. It forces us to think bigger and do something we have not always proven very gifted at: building a joint understanding of about vulnerabilities, needs and priorities.

Some highlights from the webinar series

What is a Minimum Expenditure Basket?

An MEB is a monetary threshold, broadly defined as what a household requires to meet basic or essential needs, and the overall cost. It covers those essential items and services that households procure through markets (e.g. are monetarized) and are accessible in adequate quality through local markets and services. See a further MEB definition in the CALP Network’s glossary.

Why do we need MEBs?

Most of the time, we find ourselves constructing MEBs for straightforward, operational purposes – we need a basket threshold to help set transfer values, or to measure vulnerabilities against, or to trace cost of living over time. That is, the MEB helps solve practical problems. However, MEBs also provide an opportunity to better understand our contribution to improving people’s lives. By connecting interventions and building a comprehensive approach to relief, it can provide a powerful analysis on how to improve intervention quality, it can serve as a tool for monitoring and also act as a policy influencer when used in advocacy efforts.

How do we construct MEBs?

Different analytical approaches exist to constructing a MEB. We typically distinguish between an expenditure-based approach, a rights-based approach – and a hybrid-approach, combining the best of the two. The guidance linked to at the end of this post provide practical illustrations of the different methods.

Sometimes, thresholds such as a national poverty line already exists – and sometimes, these suffice also for the purposes of humanitarian assistance. However, often, we need more tailored analyses for the populations we serve. For instance, during the COVID-19 crisis, WFP led a further analysis on the gaps created by increased prices and cuts in income, and updated the MEB accordingly, which led to an increase of 5% of the transfer value. This requires an understanding of how people consume, prioritise between needs and interact with markets. Having access to primary data on household consumption and expenditure patterns is key in this regard.

MEBs and transfer values.

One of the webinar sessions was dedicated to the topic of how to use an MEB to calculate the most appropriate transfer value. Crucially, the MEB is not the same as the transfer value – however, we can use the MEB to help determine the transfer value.  The first step is to understand the gap between the MEB threshold and what households can afford themselves – a so-called gap analysis. A host of other considerations also enter the picture: what is the objective of the intervention, duration and frequency of assistance, adjustment to household size, and, importantly, the question of coverage (how many people?) versus depth (how much for each?) of assistance. These questions were touched upon during the webinar series and some advice is available in the Q&A documents – see the links below.

The MEB versus the SMEB.

The ‘S’ stands for ‘survival’ – and in some contexts, survival MEBs have been constructed instead of or alongside an MEB. However, distinguishing between what constitutes a minimum and what constitutes a survival minimum can prove tricky, e.g. in acute humanitarian crises. This often begs the question as to whether we need SMEBs at all? Does it add value to put a price on the absolute survival threshold, or will the MEB suffice? There has not been a clear consensus emerging from the series. Discussions are likely to continue!

Three key take-aways from the MEB webinar series

The webinar series illustrated some major progress: There is consensus forming on some overarching principles for MEB construction and our overall knowledge and capacities are improving. There are fewer disagreements about how MEBs should be developed, and more technical, in-depth and constructive discussions happening at all levels. This is great news! So what can we say about MEB construction?

  1. Keep it simple. At the end of the day, it is about developing a useful product, using available evidence and data, to improve the quality of our interventions. We are not reinventing the wheel; there is vast expertise and experience to build on; let’s use it, and let’s not overcomplicate it!
  2. Keep it grounded in reality. The MEB process should lead us to arrive at a realistic depiction of needs and of the market-cost of covering them. To be useful, the MEB should be rooted in evidence and illustrate real needs, household priorities and consumption behaviours.
  3. Keep it collaborative. MEB processes benefit from collaboration – indeed, this collaboration can come in different forms and shades, and organisational capacities and roles differ; some agencies may be analytically advanced and able to lead MEB processes. But as demonstrated in the webinar MEB products improve when expertise and insights are combined and when assumptions are challenged.

Keep improving your MEB practice

The webinar series illustrated that there is still great appetite for technical support and continued experience sharing.

If you have a question or comment about Minimum Expenditure Baskets, please comment in the space below.


Main image: In El Salvador a participant of WFP’s Resilience and Climate Change Programme goes shopping at the local supermarket using the e-voucher she received as part of the programme. WFP/Rein Skullerud, 06 April 2017.