The impact of cash transfers on Syrian refugees in Lebanon: Evidence from a multidimensional regression discontinuity design

Nisreen Salti, Jad Chaaban, Wael Moussa, Alexandra Irani, Rima Al Mokdad, Zeina Jamaluddine, and Hala Ghattas

Journal of Development Economics, Volume 155, Article 102803 (2022)


This paper examines the impact of multipurpose cash assistance (MPC) provided to Syrian refugee households in Lebanon. Approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees lived in Lebanon in 2018, of whom almost a million were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since 2017, UNHCR and WFP have provided multipurpose cash assistance to eligible refugee households over a 12-month period, equivalent to around US$175 per household per month. Households are selected annually based on their score on a proxy means testing (PMT) formula that predicts household expenditures using a set of socio-demographic characteristics from UNHCR registration data.

The authors evaluate the effects of two year-long cash cycles beginning in November 2017 and November 2018. They consider the effects on four groups of households: (1) discontinued recipients (households received cash for 12 months but were not included in the next cash cycle); (2) short-run cash recipients (households received cash for 12 months or less); (3) long-run recipients (households received cash for more than 12 months); and (4) non-beneficiary households. The impact of cash assistance was measured by comparing: (a) beneficiaries to non-beneficiaries; (b) beneficiary groups with varying durations of receipt of cash assistance; and (c) beneficiaries to groups discontinued from the program.

The analysis is based on data from: (i) two waves of household survey data collected in 2019 from economically vulnerable Syrian refugee households in Lebanon covering MPC receipt from 2017 to 2018; and (ii) UNHCR registration data, including households’ PMT scores in 2017 and 2018 and access to other assistance programs.

Main findings:

  • Multipurpose cash improves total household expenditures for all groups. Long-run cash recipient households spend significantly more than other groups. The results are especially large when comparing long-run to short-run cash recipients and long-run to discontinued cash recipients. However, even short-run cash recipients spend significantly more than non-recipients.
  • Multipurpose cash increases spending on food. Food expenditures increased significantly with any duration of assistance and remained higher even (up to) ten months after a household was taken out of the program. Similarly, food expenditures increased in the short-run cash recipient group compared to non-recipients, but if a household remained in the program for a second cycle (long-run), their food expenditures increased even further, suggesting cumulative improvements over time.
  • Multipurpose cash tends to increase spending on health. Long-run cash recipients spent more on health, and some of these improvements materialized before the long-run. Spending on health was higher for short-run cash recipients than for non-recipient households.
  • The receipt of MPC in the long-run significantly improved shelter. Compared to the control group and short-run cash recipients, long-run cash recipients were more likely to live in residential housing, as opposed to living in non-residential housing or informal tented settlements.
  • The long-run receipt of MPC reduced labor market participation and reduced unemployment among adults, compared to short-run and non-recipients. Only in the long-run, and only in comparison to non-recipients, was there any effect of MPC on labor market status. The decline in labor market participation may be due to recipients opting out of low-paid, dangerous, or undesirable labor activities (such as begging, theft, commercial sex, etc.) or out of low-risk but poorly remunerated activities. The results also suggest that the decrease in labor force participation could have been partly due to unemployed workers leaving the workforce.
  • There were positive effects of the multipurpose cash program on enrollment in formal education, especially for long-run recipients compared to non-recipients. Girls’ enrollment improved for all treatment groups, and the improvement was significant for discontinued and long-run groups compared to non-recipients. The effects on boys’ enrolment were also positive, but smaller in magnitude. There was also a shift from non-formal schooling (run by NGOs and international organizations and not recognized by the Lebanese government) to formal schooling for both girls and boys in the long run compared to non-recipients. The improvement in school enrollment is most likely due to students who were previously enrolled in non-formal education.
  • Receipt of MPC lowered rates of child labor for both boys and girls. This protective effect was lasting, as there were lower rates of child labor even in households who were discontinued from MPC, and it was cumulative, as long-run receipt offered significantly more protection than short-run receipt.

The authors conclude that there may be substantial benefits to increasing the length of a cash cycle or only revising eligibility every other year since: (1) for most improved outcomes, there were significant improvement in the long-run cash recipients compared to non-recipients; (2) there was frequently cumulative improvement between the short- and long-runs; (3) significant short-run improvements were far less frequent; and (4) while there isn’t any evidence to suggest that discontinuation could hurt the household more than never having received MPC, the beneficial effects of cash rarely outlasted the program duration for discontinued recipients.