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Expect the Unexpected: A Case Study of Impacts of Urban Food Vouchers in Somalia


This case study reviews CRS’ food voucher program in urban Somalia over two years, which brought benefits to markets and communities beyond its intended scope. The study is intended as a resource for practitioners and others looking to learn from recent experiences in urban market-based approaches and food security, as well as a reference for those planning market-based food programming in urban or insecure environments.

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Executive Summary

Beginning in early 2013, CRS implemented a series of food voucher programs, designed to meet the urgent food needs of vulnerable IDP and host households in urban communities. The vouchers were unconditional, but restricted to food purchases. The programs began in Kismayo in January 2013 (to December 2013), Baidoa (February 2014 to August 2014) and Mogadishu (July 2014 to December 2014). While the voucher program focused primarily on increasing food access and improving food security outcomes, CRS noted multiple unanticipated impacts on households, market actors, and communities, demonstrating the wide-reaching potential of urban cash-based programming.

Key Findings (unanticipated impacts)

The case study highlights several key findings that are applicable as learning opportunities, as well as for consideration in the urban food security sector. Some of the most important findings include:
  • Urban food vouchers offer substantive opportunities for vendors to increase basic skills such as literacy and numeracy; access formalized banking/ business planning; expand their economic opportunity; support local labor opportunities; and build stronger relationships with each other, with the community, and with other market actors.
  • Unconditional, restricted food vouchers are well-suited to the unpredictable security context of urban hubs in Somalia, as they reduce logistical burdens on staff, reduce visibility of food aid, and allow household choice.
  • Food vouchers improve household relationships and reduce labor burden on household members, including children. Reduced need for immediate cash also eases tensions within the household, and minimizes the need for women and children to participate in socially-unacceptable income-earning opportunities to support food needs. Food vouchers can replace the role of absent or inconsistent breadwinners in food insecure households.
  • Household debt management is facilitated by food vouchers, and has a demonstrated impact of reducing and/or halting acquired debt among beneficiary households.
  • Household economy and resource-based decision making is influenced by the use of vouchers to obtain basic food items. Though households received assistance to meet just 50 percent of their needs, funds “freed up” by voucher programs are used for schooling and education, debt repayment, startup of household businesses, and medical needs.
  • Urban communities receiving food vouchers may experience reduced social tensions; in the case of Somalia, conflict and tension between IDP and host community groups was dramatically reduced.
  • Food assistance delivered through vouchers can benefit from community solidarity and existing safety nets, resulting in household sharing of food resources to the benefit of other vulnerable families; therefore, the impact of the voucher on reducing acute food insecurity for non-beneficiaries is noteworthy.

Key Recommendations

  • Where literacy, vendor financial management capacity, or logistics are constraints, unconditional, restricted vouchers (or possibly cash) may be appropriate modalities for food assistance. The CRS team modified its program modality along the way in response to identified constraints; this enabled beneficiaries, vendors, and staff to participate in safe, transparent and accountable programs in a complex setting.
  • Security risk can be reduced by adjusting voucher distribution and redemption cycles according to the context. Programs should avoid the risk of crowding and unrest or frustration within the proximity of project offices or vendor locations by ensuring well- established and communicated time periods for the collection and use of vouchers.
  • Actors should anticipate community safety net and social solidarity systemsin targeting and voucher allocations, as these are important indigenous coping strategies for food security.
  • Program monitoring systems should consider unintended and wider “ripple effects”of vouchers on households, market actors, and the community at large.

Publication details

Publisher: Catholic Relief Services (June 2015)
Case study: 18 pages
Language: English
Dimensions: 8.5 x 11 inches

Posted on June 18, 2015

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