Cash-based transfers in crisis: Why more evidence is needed to support women in crisis, and what we’re doing about it

©WFP/Hugh Rutherford

Impact Evaluation in the humanitarian space Cash-based transfers in crisis: Why more evidence is needed to support women in crisis, and what we’re doing about it

4 min.

The increasing intensity of humanitarian crises and conflict across the globe has led to the highest level of displaced people in history.

[1] These disasters carry particular consequences for women and girls, who are more likely to experience gender-based violence, assume additional care and labour burdens, or adopt negative coping strategies as a result.  Meanwhile, cash-based interventions are rising in popularity as a preferred option of humanitarian aid delivery.

Cash-based transfers have long been a focus of study, starting when Mexico’s Progresa and its experimental evaluation design first made waves in the late 1990s.  Since then, evidence has been building almost as rapidly as cash-transfer programmes have expanded globally.  When the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) took on the task of reviewing the evidence to date, they came up with a whopping 165 rigorous studies from 30 countries and 56 different cash transfer programmes. 

But while a wealth of evidence exists on the use of cash transfers as part of social protection systems or in more stable contexts, there is little evidence from humanitarian and fragile contexts, and even less on gender-related outcomes in these settings.  The lack of evidence is striking.  In the last systematic review of cash in the humanitarian sphere, only one impact evaluation [2] – notably on WFP programming – looked at a gender-related outcome (i.e. gender-based violence).

Why is it important to understand the impact of cash-based transfers on gender-related outcomes in fragile settings?  Here are three reasons:

  1. Gender norms are dynamic during crises. Major shocks, such as conflict or disaster, force people to move and adapt out of necessity, altering roles and expectations for men and women [3]. For WFP, supporting women to adapt to their new context provides important opportunities to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.
  2. Extreme deprivation caused by shocks or crises results in shifting priorities and extra work for women. To survive during crises, women take up different forms of paid and unpaid labour. In some contexts where women traditionally worked in the home, this means challenging gender stereotypes (while navigating the extra burden on her time).  Put bluntly, Kabeer says about a woman in Bangladesh: “This woman could abide by her community’s norms and enjoy their approval, or she could feed her children”[4].  
  3. Humanitarian crisis, and thus humanitarian assistance, is unpredictable.  When exploring the gender transformative potential of cash-based programming, both the timing of the transfers and the timing at which impacts are expected and measured matter considerably.  Recent studies on cash from Malawi and Bangladesh suggest that positive changes in some women’s empowerment outcomes have the potential for a ‘bounce-back’ effect once the programme is over. The (often) short-term implementation of humanitarian assistance coupled with unpredictable funding means evidence on timing is even more important in the context of crisis. 

What are we doing about it?

The Office of Evaluation at WFP, together with our partners at Development Impact Evaluation (DIME) from the World Bank, opened a Cash-based Transfers and Gender Impact Evaluation Window to generate more evidence around cash and gender in fragile and humanitarian contexts.  Windows are part of OEV’s new strategy for centrally managing and supporting impact evaluations commissioned across WFP.  Over the next three to five years, we will be gathering evidence on cash-based programming with our colleagues from country offices across the globe, to answer questions about what works, why, and for whom.

Follow our progress here.

Watch our video introducing WFP’s Impact Evaluation Strategy here.


[1] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (2019). Global Humanitarian Overview. Available from

[2] Hidrobo M., Hoddinott, J., Peterman, A ., Margolies, A., Moreira, V. (2014). Cash, food or vouchers? Evidence from a randomized experiment in northern Ecuador. Journal of Development Economics. 107: 144-156.

[3] O'Neil, T., Fleury, A., and Foresti, M. 2016. Women on the move: Migration, gender equality and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ODI Briefing.

[4] Kabeer, N. (2015). Gender, poverty and inequality: a brief history of feminist contributions in the field of international development. Gender & Development. 23(2):189-205.  Quote from page 192.