Children on the move: Progressive redistribution of humanitarian cash transfers among refugees

Berk Özler, Çiğdem Çelik, Scott Cunningham, P. Facundo Cuevas, and Luca Parisotto

Journal of Development Economics, Volume 153 (2021), Article Number 102733


This paper examines the causal effects of the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) program, which was launched in November 2016 and currently supports around 1.7 million refugees in Turkey.

The analysis is based on a pre-assistance baseline survey (PAB) undertaken by telephone between February and May 2017 and covering a sample of 8,690 applicant households. Three phone-based, post-distribution monitoring (PDM) surveys were undertaken at 6-month intervals covering all PAB households. There was a high rate of attrition from the study sample in each of the PDM surveys. The surveys collected information on household demographics (including school attendance), expenditures, diversity of foods consumed, strategies to cope with lack of resources, main income sources, debt levels and repayments, and remittances.

The researchers calculated aggregate per capita household expenditures, share of school-aged children attending school regularly, and indices for a Food Consumption Score (FCS), Reduced Coping Strategies (rCSI), and Livelihood Coping Strategies (LCSI). The FCS is an index of the diversity and frequency of foods consumed at the household level, the rCSI is a measure of the level of stress faced by a household due to food shortages, and the LCSI assesses the stress and severity of coping mechanisms used by households and their implications for longer-term productive capacity.

Main findings:

  • The program increased household expenditure due to increased spending on food and education. After 6-12 months, average household expenditure was 5-7 percent higher in beneficiary households compared to non-beneficiary households, but this effect appears to dissipate after 18 months. The increase in consumption is driven by increased food and education expenditures.
  • The program reduced debt levels among beneficiary households. Beneficiary households made larger debt repayments leading to a reduction in their debt level of 18-24 percent compared to non-beneficiary households.
  • The size of the consumption effect was substantially smaller than the transfers received by beneficiary households. The authors posit that beneficiary households may have purchased durable goods which were not captured in the surveys, or underreported their food expenditures.
  • Unexpectedly, per capita expenditure in beneficiary households fell below that of non-beneficiary households. Per capita expenditure levels in beneficiary households were about 6-10 percent lower than in non-beneficiary households. This effect is attributed to changes in refugee household size and composition, leading to a 0.8-person difference between beneficiary and non-beneficiary household sizes.
  • There was a net movement of individuals, primarily school-aged children, from non-beneficiary households towards beneficiary households. The overall number of children in beneficiary households increased, while the number of children in non-beneficiary households decreased.
  • Total consumption and per capita consumption also increased among non-beneficiary households. After 18 months, total consumption had increased by 10 percent and per capita income had increased by 16 percent among non-beneficiary households.
  • The program increased the food consumption score and reduced the frequency of negative coping strategies among beneficiary households, especially in the short term. Beneficiary households ate fruit, vegetables, and meat more frequently than non-beneficiary households. After six months, adults in beneficiary households were less likely to forgo meals or reduce portion size so that children could eat, but after 18 months they were equally or even more likely to use these coping strategies. After six months, beneficiary households were also less likely to resort to livelihoods-based coping strategies (such as selling assets, borrowing, using savings, reducing food consumption, or returning to the country of origin), but this effect disappears after 12-months, and after 18 months beneficiary households were more likely to reduce food consumption.
  • On average, there was no change in the proportion of school-aged children attending school, despite increased expenditure on education among beneficiary households. However, children in the most vulnerable beneficiary households were more likely to attend school.
  • The program led to a decline in poverty and inequality in the entire study population. Per capita consumption for beneficiary households ended up being lower than per capita consumption for non-beneficiary households, while poverty and inequality declined substantially across the entire study population. This is likely due to the movement of children from non-beneficiary to beneficiary households.

Overall, ESSN had positive effects on beneficiary households, especially for food consumption and coping strategies to deal with shortages of food, and school attendance increased for the most vulnerable households. Unexpectedly, the program led to a net movement of children from larger and worse-off non-beneficiary households into smaller and better-off beneficiary households, leading to a substantial decline in poverty and inequality in the entire study population. The author concludes that refugees may respond to eligibility status by altering their household structure and living arrangements. The authors suggest that if the program was extended to a larger group of households, but offered a smaller cash transfer per individual, some of this churn in household composition could be avoided.

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