Empowering refugees through cash and agriculture: A regression discontinuity design

Claire MacPherson and Olivier Sterck

Journal of Development Economics, Volume 149 (2021)



This article assesses the impact of the development approach promoted in the Kalobeyei refugee settlement in Turkana County in Northwest Kenya. Opened in 2016 just 3.5 kilometers from the Kakuma refugee camp, the Kalobeyei refugee settlement was envisaged as a model for a development-oriented approach to refugee assistance, with programs to foster self-reliance and integration. For example, in-kind food assistance has been almost entirely replaced by mobile-money transfers (known as Bamba Chakula) and rain-fed agriculture is widely promoted as a way of supplementing and diversifying refugee diets. As of February 28, 2021, Kalobeyei hosted 41,000 refugees and Kakuma refugee camp hosted over 165,000 refugees. Most refugees in Turkana County are from South Sudan and Somalia, with smaller numbers from DRC, Burundi, Ethiopia and Sudan.

The authors take advantage of the fact that from one specific day (May 14, 2016) refugee households were settled in Kalobeyei settlement instead of Kakuma camp. This enables the authors to compare the socioeconomic outcomes of refugees who arrived shortly before and after the cutoff date, and interpret any discontinuity in average outcomes as resulting from the differing programs between the two sites. The authors also study 24 possible mechanisms driving these results grouped into four categories: (a) involvement in productive activities; (b) mobility and household composition; (c) human and physical capital; and (d) access to services. They also study the differences in prices and in the modalities of food assistance.

The analysis is based on data from a representative household survey of refugees living in Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei settlement in September and October 2017, focusing on households that registered 15 months before and after the opening of Kalobeyei settlement. The sample includes 1,874 South-Sudanese refugees (960 in Kakuma and 914 in Kalobeyei) in 1,126 households.

Main results:

  • Refugees in the Kalobeyei settlement have better diets than refugees in the Kakuma camp. Their diets are more diverse (including more vegetable and fish), they eat more food (measured in calories and monetary terms), and they are less food insecure (even though food insecurity rates remain high in both sites).
  • There isn’t any evidence that refugees in Kalobeyei accumulate more assets or increase spending on non-food items. Asset holding is very low, especially for recent arrivals. Less than half of households reported non-food expenditures, consistent with extremely high levels of poverty in Kakuma and Kalobeyei.
  • There is some evidence of a positive effect on subjective wellbeing. There is suggestive evidence that refugees living in Kalobeyei feel happier and more independent from aid than refugees in Kakuma.
  • Overall, the “Kalobeyei effect” encompasses improvements in dietary diversity, calorie intake, food consumption value, food security, subjective wellbeing, and perception of independence from aid.
  • The “Kalobeyei effect” is not driven by differences in employment, differences in accumulation of human or physical capital, nor access to finance or remittances. Employment is dramatically low in both camps: only 7 percent of South-Sudanese recent arrivals have an income-generating activity. Employment levels are particularly low for very recent arrivals.
  • Kitchen-garden agriculture appears to improve refugee diets and food security, but do not increase calorie intake. 71 percent of households who arrived less than a month after the cutoff date had a kitchen garden at the time of the survey—this percentage is only 33 percent for those who arrived less than one month before the cutoff date. There is suggestive evidence that improvements in dietary variety and food security in Kalobeyei are partly due to kitchen gardens. However, there is no significant difference in calorie intake between refugees who grow their own food and those that do not. A possible explanation is that the types of food grown are dense in nutrients but not in calories.
  • Most of the “Kalobeyei effect” can be attributed to different modes of food assistance offered in Kakuma and Kalobeyei. In Kakuma, refugees receive in-kind food assistance (13 kg of a mix of cereals, pulses, and oil) and frequently resell some of their food rations at a low price in order to purchase preferred food types or non-food items. In contrast, refugees in Kalobeyei receive mobile money transfers that allow them to buy the food they prefer without additional transaction costs.

The results suggest that the development approach to refugee assistance promoted in Kalobeyei is having positive effects, possibly due to the wider promotion of cash assistance and kitchen gardens. The authors argue that cash assistance is not only associated with better nutritional outcomes for refugees, it is also more cost efficient than in-kind transfers. In 2017, the World Food Program (WFP) estimated that the total cost of delivering US$1 to beneficiaries was US$1.18 for Bamba Chakula transfers compared to US$1.94 for in-kind food assistance. The authors calculate that WFP could save US$17 million if it were to replace in-kind assistance with Bamba Chakula transfers in Kakuma and Dadaab camps. In addition, there would be positive spillovers to local communities.