Cash-based approaches in humanitarian emergencies: A systematic review

Shannon Doocy and Hannah Tappis


The primary objective of this review was to assess and synthesize existing evidence on the effects of cash-based approaches on individual and household outcomes in humanitarian emergencies. The secondary objective was to assess the efficiency of different cash-based approaches and identify factors that hinder and facilitate programme implementation. The paper reviewed:

  • experimental and quasi-experimental studies to assess the effects of unconditional cash transfers, conditional cash transfers and voucher programmes for crisis-affected populations;
  • economic studies assessing the efficiency of cash-based approaches; and
  • observational, qualitative and mixed method studies assessing the factors that facilitate or hinder the implementation of cash-based approaches in different settings.

Out of 4,094 studies identified in the initial search, a total of 113 publications (108 unique studies) were included in this systematic review. Only nine studies were found in peer-reviewed publications. Overall, the body of evidence reviewed is of low quality due to methodological limitations. While the evidence reviewed offers some insights, the paucity of rigorous research on cash-based approaches limits the strength of the conclusions. The main findings are:

  • Unconditional cash transfers and vouchers may improve household food security among conflict-affected populations and maintain household food security within the context of food insecurity crises and drought. Mobile transfers may be a more successful asset protection mechanism than physical cash transfers.
  • Cash transfers and vouchers may be more cost-efficient than in-kind food distribution. In-kind food distribution has substantially higher administrative costs per dollar value provided to a beneficiary than unconditional cash transfers. Cash-based approaches may have positive economic multiplier effects.
  • Intervention design and implementation play a greater role in determining effectiveness and efficiency of cash-based approaches than the particular emergency context or humanitarian sector.


Doocy, S., & Tappis, H. (2016). Cash-based approaches in humanitarian emergencies: A systematic review (3ie Systematic Review Report 28). London: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie).