How can cash assistance help people in disaster zones? Stories from the Turkey-Syria earthquakes

In February 2023, when two massive earthquakes struck southern Turkey and north-west Syria, millions of lives were torn apart. It was clear the road to recovery would be long and complex.  

To rebuild from such devastation is not a quick or easy process. Residential buildings had collapsed and key infrastructure across the region was severely damaged. Overall, an estimated 18 million people were directly affected.  

In many humanitarian crises like this, goods are still available on the market, but the affected population has lost the means to buy them.  

A man walks past a destroyed building following the deadly earthquake in Southeastern Turkey. Photo: CARE International

People have lost their livelihoods, either due to being displaced or businesses being destroyed, leaving many without their regular income. Even for people with access to their money, prices in disaster zones often rise because of limited supplies, and after an earthquake, affected people are likely to have additional costs replacing damaged possessions, paying for emergency accommodation etc.  

This is why a key part of the DEC’s response is the distribution of cash payments or vouchers. Allowing people to spend money quickly making their own decisions about what their biggest needs are, giving people flexibility in their spending, helping to re-gain a sense of independence and dignity which may have been taken from them by the disaster.  

In the three months following the earthquake, 46% of the DEC funds spent went on providing cash payments. Over 40,000 households were given cash vouchers, which could be used in specified supermarkets. DEC charities made sure that these vouchers reached people who needed it most including vulnerable groups like women, families with children, older people and people with disabilities.

In the wake of an earthquake, the speed of aid distribution is crucial. In an instant, a large chunk of the population are left with no access to the things they need to survive.  

A key benefit of cash distribution is how quickly it is to access. It is faster than traditional aid delivery methods, such as shipping and distributing physical goods from other countries and also comes at a much lower cost to the environment. 

Cutting out the shipping and distribution of goods also makes it much more cost-effective, and in situations where supermarkets and local markets are open, the spending provides a cash injection to the country, helping to stimulate local economies by creating demand for goods and services.  

David Bell, Programmes and Finance Manager, at the DEC, explains the benefits:  

“The use of cash assistance in contexts such as earthquakes is one of the most sustainable ways to support affected communities.  

"The freedom it provides helps people transition from emergency relief eventually into self-reliance, enabling them to meet their own priority needs in the most appropriate way.  This helps to reduce the long-term dependency on aid and restore a sense of normality to people’s lives, one they wouldn’t have when relying on standard packages of aid goods.    

"When people are given the freedom to support themselves, it is easier for cultural sensitivity to be observed, and when thinking in the long term, letting recipients invest in their livelihoods, education, and other areas that promote self-sufficiency. All these factors are key when recovering from a disaster of this scale”.  

Zeynep, who received cash payments from British Red Cross to help meet her families basic needs, pictured during a visit near Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo: Özge Sebzeci/DEC

In Turkey Zeynep’s family and others in the village were given DEC funded supermarket vouchers to help them buy food and other essentials.

“We received [DEC funded] vouchers that helped us buy food from the supermarket.” says Zeynep. She received one of the 8,000 vouchers distributed by Turkish Red Cresent, local partner of British Red Cross, to the families most in need.

“I want my children to have food, water and clothes. I don’t want them to be hungry” she says.  

Hasna* pushes Samar*, her paralyzed mother, in a wheelchair at a camp in north-west Syria. Photo: Arete/DEC

In Syria, Samar sustained serious injuries when the earthquake hit. She explainsMy condition means that I must follow a special diet, and I’ve faced many challenges during the past few months trying to obtain suitable food”.  

Samar has been receiving cash assistance from DEC charity Concern Worldwide. Speaking on the help she’s received, Samar says “Cash assistance is the most appropriate form of support, since it allows me to see a doctor, pay for medication, and obtain food that meets my dietary requirements.” 

By bypassing logistical hurdles and allowing people to make decisions that suit their circumstances, cash assistance is now a key part of all humanitarian responses, getting people the support they need faster.