A review of evidence of humanitarian cash transfer programming in urban areas

Gabrielle Smith & Lili Mohiddin


The scale of urbanisation, the nature of urban crises and urban vulnerability are the focus of a growing body of literature, as is the efficiency and effectiveness of cash transfer programming (CTP) – however, much experience of CTP to date has come from rural areas. This raises the question of what cash transfer programming can contribute to urban emergency response and whether humanitarian organisations have the capacity to respond effectively. This review seeks to address this gap in the knowledge of cash transfer programming.

Documented experiences of urban CTP show sectors utilising a range of cash modalities and delivery mechanisms in all types of emergency contexts, including rapid and slow onset disaster, conflict, complex and protracted crises. The literature shows a growth in awareness of the potential role CTP can play in meeting urban humanitarian needs within sectors including livelihoods; shelter; water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); and health.

There is evidence emerging that urban areas offer potential for agencies to ‘do things differently’, for example through the provision of consolidated programmes providing single transfers to meet a range of sectoral needs (multipurpose grants or MPGs); linking cash to existing services and training to support livelihoods recovery; and targeting higher-wealth categories with livelihoods support to re-establish credit lines and support wider economic recovery.

Coordination of CTP is relatively new and best practices are still emerging. Learning from cash coordination in urban areas to date highlights the need to consider coordination more broadly, to include government and private-sector actors as well as other stakeholders involved in CTP implementation. With regard to beneficiary identification, a number of studies point to characteristics of urban settings which make determining who is ‘most vulnerable’ and identifying beneficiaries challenging and time consuming.

There is solid evidence from all emergency contexts that the strength of network coverage and development of financial services in urban areas generally means that e-payment systems are effective delivery channels for However, factors including infrastructure, familiarity and literacy of beneficiaries can still present barriers to the adoption and use of e-payments and the most appropriate delivery mechanism may still be over-the-counter channels or even a combination.

The review highlights aspects of urban environments and vulnerability that can present barriers to effective implementation of CTP that must be taken into account during CTP design. The review provides a set of recommendations for policymakers and practitioners to take forward urban CTP.


Smith, G., & Mohiddin, L. (2015). A review of evidence of humanitarian cash transfer programming in urban areas (IIED Working Paper). London: International Institute for Environment and Development.