Andrew Harper has a staff of 600, a budget of more than $280 million, and an office littered with color-coded maps marked by hand-drawn arrows. Violet is for Isis, orange for Al-nusra Front, and green for the government of Syria. The arrows are for people: Since 2011, nearly 700,000 have poured over the border from Syria to Jordan, and there are an estimated 70,000 more on the border, desperate to get in.

Harper, the UN High Commissioner for Migrants’ top representative in Jordan, has been in migrant crises from Turkey to Sumatra, but none as large and complicated as this. With his budget straining and Jordanians increasingly worried about the migrant camp in Zaatri that had become their fourth-largest city, Harper put into practice his simplest, cheapest option: Move migrants out of camps, give cash allowances to as many as possible, and then essentially let them take care of themselves.

It  may not sound like a revolution—but it could be the beginning of one.

Globally, the provision of aid doesn’t run like this now. The Center for Global Development found that less than 6% of the world’s aid is given in cash. Most aid comes from a fractious combination of governmental agencies and NGOs and is doled out in the form of vouchers and in-kind donations—think blankets, kerosene heaters, and bags of rice. Although somewhat effective at alleviating immediate need for food and shelter, this kind of aid does little to help build new lives.

Andrew Harper speaks with a refugee in Jordan.

And that’s where cash comes in. If the $20 billion or so in aid the world gives to refugees were given in cash, economists argue, spending could be better tracked, and security could improve. Moreover, the administrative savings would be so great, we could help far more people for the same amount of money: 30% more people, some studies have estimated.

The economic case for cash aid extends beyond an immediate cost-benefit analysis though. Harper’s work, and that of a handful of other organizations, essentially turns on its head the way the world thinks about refugees. It empowers refugees, and in doing so, it offers a new economic model for the aid business, one enabled by mobile money and anchored in the effectiveness of markets.

Cash is king

Harper, who’s in the vanguard of the movement toward cash, is a UNHCR lifer. He studied economics in college and had seen cash work in smaller scale projects.  His experiment, which started in Jordan and is spreading to Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt, has enrolled 1.9 million refugees so far. He targets those judged most vulnerable, like women-led households, for monthly allowances. In Jordan, more than 32,000 families have received nearly $200 million, an average of a little less than $120 a month.

He’s the first to admit it’s not nearly enough. “It doesn’t meet their needs; it keeps them on the edge of subsistence,” he said. But for each refugee Harper moves out of the camps, he cuts his per-person cost by two-thirds.

Cash is compellingly lean: It doesn’t need to be shipped, and programs to administer it are relatively easy to set up and maintain. Like UNHCR in Jordan, others have been experimenting with cash, though on a smaller scale. On Lesvos, it took Tom Byrnes, then the head of Mercy Corps’ cash programs in southern Europe, about three weeks to set up programs to give debit cards to the most vulnerable refugees, like women and children traveling alone. With a handful of staffers, the Portland, Oregon-based charity has given out 2,785 debit cards worth a total of more than €500,000 ($557,448) since November.

Cash is less wasteful. Mohamed Madani, 9, one of the refugees in the Mercy Corps program, wears a pair of ill-fitting canvas shoes. Embarrassed, he points to a bloody blister on his ankle. “It was raining,” he whispers in Arabic, to explain why he doesn’t have his own clothes anymore. “We slept in the mud.”

Some portion of in-kind aid never fits, causing much to be thrown away or resold at falling values. A study of Syrian refugees in Iraq showed high numbers selling items they’d received from donors. Nearly 70% sold rice.

Cash can empower refugees. Mohamed’s mother, Mona, and her sister, Widad, handed €250 ($278) debit cards, head to the street  to buy food and him a new pair of shoes. Abayas flying as they walk, they grill an aid worker about the stores with the best prices.

The Madani sisters with their children.

Not incidentally, cash helps refugees avoid camps. Even those considered models, like Zaatri in Jordan, breed learned-helplessness. Barbed-wire camps on Lesvos, housing about 5,000 people in trailers, are notorious for riots and rapes.

Most importantly, the Madani sisters show us the long-term economic case for switching to a cash-based system. Out of the camps, empowered by cash, it’s clear they don’t think of themselves as victims. They plan to save most of the money on their cards to travel to Athens, where they will apply to be resettled in Germany, to join their husbands. A smarter world would see them not as victims or threats, but as a market for goods and services.

Harnessing market forces

Refugees can be seen individually as consumers and collectively as a huge, stateless country of people, who, by virtue of being funded by the humanitarian system, can afford to pay for services and goods. (There were more than 65 million displaced people in 2015, up from 42.5 million in 2011.) With more cash in hand, economists say, refugees could create their own markets or boost existing ones, for everything from clothes and food to education, job training, or financial services.

Cash programs flow via mobile money, and the infrastructure created to administer the programs can create a glide path for refugees into the world economy. On Lesvos, the refugees’ debit cards draw on a Mercy Corps bank account. Byrnes, the administrator, said the nonprofit could eventually set up bank accounts for refugees. That would help the refugees, who would build credit histories in their new countries, and also banks, insurance companies, and others who could sell them financial services.

An ATM debit card created for refugees.

Owen Barder, vice president at the Center for Global Development, recently argued for a humanitarian endowment, where the system would capitalize a fund for refugee resettlement, using the proceeds to deliver a lump sum to host countries. Barder estimated that if a $4 billion fund were capitalized with a bond paying 2.5% a year, 100,000 refugees could each be endowed with $40,000, which would be given either to the host country, or extending his argument, direct to the refugee.


This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit and connect with and

A business journalist for 20 years, am the founder of Times of Entrepreneurship and the co-author of The New Builders.