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E-Vouchers for Syrian Refugees in Turkey: Challenges and lessons learned around vulnerability, targeting, and protection

There are more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. The vast majority of these individuals have settled in cities, not camps, and therefore receive minimal or no humanitarian assistance to help meet their basic needs. In response to this gap, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Turkey supported approximately 4,000 vulnerable out-of-camp Syrian refugee households with monthly cash transfers using supermarket e-vouchers between January and August 2015.

4 April 2016 — By Paula Armstrong, Karen Jacobsen

Oxfam distribution in East Ghouta

With support from ECHO’s Enhanced Response Capacity (ERC) grant, a Tufts University research team travelled to southern Turkey in summer 2015 to produce a comprehensive “lessons learned” analysis of the e-voucher intervention, focusing in particular on its protection implications. The key recommendations from the report are below and can be useful to any organization implementing a cash transfer program. The full report is available here.

1. Maintain a participatory and communicative approach throughout a cash-based intervention

When developing the vulnerability scoring index that was used to select households for assistance, DRC staff drew on qualitative data collected through discussions with refugees, host community members, local authorities, and internal/external NGO staff. This approach was effective and helped DRC to create a locally-grounded targeting system.  However, once made and put into practice, the index was perceived as “set in stone,” despite local staff quickly identifying several indicators that needed adjustment. DRC should have included opportunities to refine the index by regularly consulting with field staff and target populations on which indicators are accurate and which are problematic, and making adjustments accordingly.

Further, the rationale and methodology behind the targeting system was not clearly conveyed to staff and volunteer enumerators, who in turn could not explain the system to refugee households. This lack of transparency resulted in many non-selected households being frustrated. However, DRC staff found that when they explained the reasons for exclusion, households generally reacted in an understanding way.  It is extremely important that all staff and enumerators understand the rationale and methodology behind the targeting system to staff and enumerators. If DRC had done this more effectively, it would have increased staff and enumerator understanding (and buy-in) and helped them explain the system clearly and convincingly to refugee households, who had the right to know program eligibility criteria (unless there were serious and unique extenuating circumstances, i.e. sharing the eligibility criteria could put people at further risk).

To mitigate the resulting potential for fraud or manipulation of eligibility, organizations can segregate staff duties, conduct spot checks in addition to post-distribution monitoring, and place more emphasis on objectively verifiable indicators (e.g. type of shelter) rather than subjective ones (e.g. income). If appropriate, organizations can also use mixed targeting methods including community-based targeting and community committees to decide referral cases or appeals. 

2. Exercise caution in collecting and using sensitive, protection-related data to target beneficiaries for cash or e-voucher assistance

DRC wanted to capitalize on the assessment survey to collect data on the full breadth of refugees’ vulnerabilities in southern Turkey, with the aim of using this data to inform future programming. They therefore included a wide variety of questions on topics such as post-traumatic stress and exposure to protection risks in the survey.  However, volunteer enumerators were not trained to collect data on such sensitive issues and reported feeling at a loss when surveyed household members reacted to their questions with tears or anger.

This unveiled the problematic nature (in terms of data quality and “do no harm”) of asking refugee households sensitive questions.  Further, this study showed that DRC’s notion of “vulnerability” – as reflected in its 90+ indicator vulnerability scoring index – was far more expansive and protection-focused than that of beneficiaries themselves, who overwhelmingly defined vulnerability in socioeconomic or dependency ratio terms. We therefore recommend that targeting for cash assistance for basic needs be based on socioeconomic criteria and that humanitarian agencies exercise caution in asking households about sensitive, protection-related issues through a quantitative survey. If enumerators identify protection concerns within a household, they should be flagged for the organization and followed up with other sectoral responses where possible.

3. Enhance positive protection implications thorough strong linkages between cash and protection programming

The principal link between DRC’s e-voucher intervention and its protection programming was a system that allowed enumerators to make protection referrals if they observed problems within a household. This link, while useful, could have been expanded upon. Because protection programming is difficult to scale to meet the cash assistance caseload volume, enumerators may be the only point of contact for refugees who seek to voice protection concerns. Consequently, humanitarian agencies like DRC can use target groups’ feedback on vulnerability and protection issues as a way to prioritize protection concerns within their programs.

Agencies can then “triage” these concerns, by dividing issues into those that can be addressed through cash assistance and those that require immediate protection follow up (“red flags” such as gender-based violence, child labor, etc.). Based on these findings, DRC Turkey made a number of adjustments to its vulnerability scoring index, enumerator training methods, and staff feedback system for its next round of basic needs cash programming, which began in January 2016.

Main image: Dania Kareh/Oxfam