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Cash for Work

Learn how Cash for Work programmes can aid communities during a humanitarian crisis, as well as their objectives, activities and advantages.

21 February 2024

The image depicts one character handing money to another character who is wearing a construction helmet and work attire, suggesting a payment for labor or services rendered.

What is a Cash for Work?

Humanitarian cash for work programmes are a type of cash and voucher assistance that aims to give people an income following or during a humanitarian crisis. Activities might include repairing roads, clearing debris or rebuilding water and sanitation facilities in return for payment.

Cash for work is a type of conditional cash programme as people are given cash transfers on condition they carry out temporary skilled or unskilled labour.

How does ‘Cash for Work’ work?

Cash for work programmes provide short-term income for people affected by a crisis at the same time as achieving other objectives such as the rebuilding of public or community infrastructure that is key to recovery.

People are generally paid according to time worked (e.g., daily rate), but may be paid for output (e.g., number of items produced).

The first step to take is to evaluate if cash for work is an appropriate response. After that, decisions on the type of jobs needed and the wage rates are needed. Payments take account of the employment market and local economy. Local state actors and communities should be consulted from the start, so they are aware of, and linked to the programme as relevant.

Once the work has started, people receive income in the form of direct payments, either in physical cash or mobile money.

Several guides exist to help agencies design and implement this type of programme, including Mercy Corps’ Guide to Cash-for-Work Programming and the Food Security Cluster’s Cash for Work (CFW) Guidance Note.

What are Cash for Work activities?

Examples of cash for work activities are:

  • Clearing debris and roads following a disaster. Clearing roads can provide access to markets and reconnect neighbourhoods which can help disaster-affected communities recover.
  • Building temporary winter shelters to protect people who have lost their homes from freezing conditions.
  • Constructing dikes or maintaining drainage around communities in flood-prone areas.
  • Maintaining water and sanitation services in a refugee camp.

What are the aims of Cash for Work?

Programmes aim to:

  • Jumpstart the local economy by increasing people’s purchasing power and stimulating local markets.
  • Create or repair community infrastructure following a disaster or conflict.
  • Increase the resilience of crisis-affected communities by providing a source of income.
  • Reduce tensions between displaced populations and host communities. For example, a project in Lebanon resulted in improved social cohesion and positive perceptions of aid when cash for work was offered to both host communities and to refugees.
  • Create temporary income opportunities following a disaster where livelihoods are lost. This may encourage people to stay rather than migrate to another area in search of work.
  • Provide paid work and fill potential labour gaps in camp settings.

Who does Cash for Work help?

Humanitarian cash for work programmes aim to help people who are affected by a crisis. They are often designed to support the most vulnerable who might not be able to find work through other channels, such as refugees or women.

It is more effective when provided for:

  • Communities with a need to maintain, build or rebuild assets or livelihoods following a disaster.
  • Communities hosting displaced populations, which are causing a strain on services and community assets.
  • Communities impacted by a widespread loss of paid work due to a disaster, emergency or other crisis context.
  • People facing reduced access to income.
  • Situations where there is meaningful work that can be completed by unskilled labour without putting them at risk.

When should cash for work be used?

Cash for work should only be used in contexts where there is clear demand and need for labour, or where it won’t stop participants from engaging in other more relevant work for their recovery.

Given the needs of people following a crisis, unconditional cash assistance are often considered more appropriate in many contexts as they avoid adding barriers for people to receive aid.

Examples of Cash for Work:

  • A GIZ and Malteser International programme has trained and hired women in four refugee camps in Iraq as health advisers. The recipients attended educational classes on hygiene, first aid and nutrition, then were tasked with sharing the information within their neighbourhood.
  • Local organisations Bonyan Organization and the White Hands Association implemented a cash for work programme in Atma Camp, Syria, for people displaced by the conflict. The project aimed to install water pumps for clean water, and dig wells, as well as income opportunities for people in the camp.
  • A Church World Service project in Baringo County, Kenya, aimed to provide agricultural communities in severe drought-prone areas with cash to cover their basic needs, support recovery from the drought and prepare for future shocks.

How much do people earn with Cash for Work?

The level of payments should avoid the risk of unwanted economic impacts such as price fluctuation, dependency or competition with local producers.

People are often paid no more than the minimum wage in the country, to minimise the risk of any negative impacts on the job market. In some cases people can be paid 10%-20% lower than the regular market rate.

The CALP Library includes guidance for cash for work programmes, such as the Emergency Livelihoods Cluster in Iraq good practices for determining wages.

For more information about other types of cash and voucher assistance on Cash 101.