A woman sits by some empty drink bottles

©Minna Passi/Finnish Red Cross

“Have you ever slept out in the open, even for a night? Can you imagine what it’s like to sleep outside for three weeks?”

After nearly a month in Nepal, Red Cross aid worker Jackie Frize knows that people there are still a long way from feeling safe.

Jackie visited the country to find out how we can help earthquake-affected families with cash programming – giving them money to buy essential household items such as soap and cooking fuel, instead of delivering these goods ourselves.

“Why should people wait?”

Jackie says: “Why should people wait for handouts of items like clothes, when there’s a shop selling them down the road?”

Nepal’s shops and traders are back in business after the country’s massive earthquakes. They are selling everything from food and bottled water to soap and cooking pots.

If they have a bit of money, many people who have lost everything can buy what they need – rather than waiting for aid trucks to arrive.

With some roads damaged and the airport only able to handle a limited number of cargo flights each day, getting goods into Nepal is slow and costly.

And narrow mountain paths mean some villages are isolated at the best of times.

If people can buy basic household items themselves, it can be much more efficient to give them the money to do so.

What’s more, cash is flexible. Sourcing and buying a planeload of blankets, flying them to Nepal, clearing customs and trucking them to remote communities can take weeks. What if, by the time they arrive, communities need something else?

Aid parcels won’t pay rent or put credit on your phone – a phone which might be vital for reaching family, getting warning of floods and landslides or finding paid work.

And when it comes to deciding what help is needed, who knows best? It’s the people affected by the disaster. Cash gives them power and dignity by letting them make their own choices.

Woman walked through a street of damaged buildings

©Mithila Jariwala / IFRC

Keeping businesses alive

Cash schemes work in partnership with local communities, by supporting local traders – not replacing them.

That’s good news, and not just for the traders. Because aid deliveries will not go on forever.

Businesses that close or move away because they have no customers may not come back when the aid dries up.

This could make it hard or impossible for people to buy essential goods in the hard months ahead. Shops also help by giving families credit before their crops are harvested.

Jackie explains: “Cash programming sends a message to traders, that they can stay and do their jobs rather than going elsewhere.”

Finding the right balance

Is cash the answer for everything? Definitely not. For the system to work goods need to be available in the disaster-hit area – and at a price local people can afford.

For example: In Nepal, the price of tents and tarpaulins has rocketed since the earthquake. That’s why we are shipping 200,000 tarpaulins into the country – rather than giving people cash to buy them. The local supply chain cannot keep up with the high demand.

Every situation is different, and it’s vital to find the right balance of cash schemes and traditional aid. That’s why we rely on experts like Jackie – as good at applying economic formulas as uncovering the market price of a sack of potatoes.

A boy walks with some goats

©Minna Passi/Finnish Red Cross

No time to lose

The Red Cross started giving out cash in Nepal, alongside traditional aid – experts like Jackie have launched a pilot cash project that will be expanded in the coming weeks.

It includes checks that make sure help is given to the most vulnerable, such as families with no income earner and older people.

There’s not a moment to lose. Heavy rains have already started, and the monsoon season will carry on for about three months. Roads will be churned up and at risk of landslides, making it even harder to get help to the right place.

When the rains ease off, there will be a window of a couple of months before winter sets in – bringing freezing weather in some of the more remote mountain areas. The sooner people get the cash and goods they need, the sooner they can rebuild their lives.

Another issue is on the horizon – soon working people in the countryside will have to make their annual trip to the cities to find seasonal work, leaving loved ones behind.

This sort of movement is common in Nepal. But with so many people vulnerable and traumatised after the earthquake, Jackie hopes the right support can delay this painful departure.

She says: “If we can’t so something to keep families together, we’ve failed.”