AMMAN, JORDAN—Mohammed stepped out of the hot sun into the cool artificial air of the bank. Walking carefully in worn but pressed clothes, the elderly Syrian approached the automatic teller machine, grasped it by its sides, and peered into its abyss.
The machine peered back, and in the blink of an eye, dispensed dinars.
It’s part of a new scheme that incorporates iris scanners—much like those used by tourists arriving at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman—as a means of identity verification for those whose visit to Jordan is more prolonged. It allows Mohammed—the father of three children, one of whom is disabled, and a man who never thought he would be a refugee—to skip the aid queue. And in Jordan, which has more than 689,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers living within its borders in camps and urban areas, the technology helps ensure people like Mohammed are able to access cash assistance quickly, safely, and with dignity.
An older couple from Homs who entered Jordan in 2013 used the iris scanner at a UNHCR processing center in Amman recently to renew their asylum certificate. One of the world’s largest, this particular center processes 3,000 applications per day. Forty-two nationalities were registered through the center in the past year.
At 68, the man (whose name has been withheld for privacy reasons) is a retired accountant. He and his wife have eight grown children—four sons and four daughters—who are scattered around the world. One is still in Homs, one is in Saudi Arabia, two went to Germany via Greece. It’s difficult and costly to stay in touch via mobile phones.
“We had a good life in Syria but if we go back to Syria we will be killed,” the man told Diplomatic Courier through a translator, his voice factual, without complaint. “All we want for the future is a simple life, a small room, and to not be dependent on anyone.”
In humanitarian disasters of the past, from Haiti to Palestine to Louisiana, in-kind donations flooded a troubled region, and displaced people would queue for bags of rice, or blankets or bottled water. Often, those disasters would be followed by claims that the aid hadn’t been sufficient, or that it had never been delivered to those who needed it. With little accountability, food went to waste on airstrips or in fields. Trucks were diverted by corruption or fraud, or waylaid by insufficient infrastructure.
“With the best of intentions, agencies are handing out things that people don’t really need,” Aoife McDonald, an external relations director with UNHCR Jordan, told Diplomatic Courier. “Cash is better for the local economy than bags of rice.”
Even when traditional aid reaches its intended target, it can miss the mark on addressing actual needs, or can be distributed at inconvenient times. The established aid system has long been criticized for flooding the local market, and shutting down existing small businesses.
That’s why cash is increasingly being seen as a better alternative. Distributing cash allows a woman to buy sanitary products at the time she needs, or to buy medicine when a child is sick. It means a family can buy the types of food that suits their needs, or reminds them more of home, or provides more nutrition than the bag du jour from an aid organization. The money is spent in the local shops, and stays in the local economy. In Jordan, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that USD $250 million was distributed in cash vouchers in 2014 (before the iris technology was implemented) which lead to USD $255-$308 million of indirect benefits for the Jordanian economy. Had the WFP continued with in-kind assistance, those funds would be have been spent outside of Jordan.
Andrew Harper, the UNCHR representative for Jordan, says distributing cash, rather than traditional aid, allows refugee families to feel some small sense of control despite the chaos of their circumstances.
“Often we believe we know best, but in fact, financial support allows refugees to choose what is best for themselves and their families in a dignified manner,” he says.
The cash program uses a wide range of digital tools, including the iris scanner, that delivers financial assistance to verified individuals on a rapid basis. The UNHCR also partners with Ciaro Bank to deliver financial assistance using biometric data.
The technology is used both within camps—King Abdullah Park, Azraq and Zataari—and within in the urban areas, where more than 518,000 refugees are residing in apartments and other living arrangements. While the urban dispersal is meant to help them acclimate to their host country more quickly, and adopt some semblance of a normal life, it provides additional challenges in distributing aid, and ensuring it’s going to the right person. It also adds a layer of accountability to the aid organizations, who can track to the last cent where the aid is going, and whether it was delivered to the appropriate person.
“Eighty-five percent of Syrians in Jordan are living in urban areas, not camps,” McDonald says. “Most are in debt, and have negative ways of coping. Ninety-three percent are living below the poverty line and can’t pay their rent. Ninety-seven percent are in what we call the refugee debt cycle, and can’t break free.”
Many stateless people in Jordan and elsewhere no longer have access to their bank accounts, let alone identification papers. The things many non-migrants take for granted in their daily banking regime—a regular mailing address, proof of employment, credit history—are merely reminders of another life for many of the refugees living in Jordan and elsewhere.
“Everyone wants to make sure that the money entrusted to us is used in the most effective manner possible, and more importantly addresses the needs of the refugees,” Harper says.
The UNHCR and other aid organizations are partnering with the Better Than Cash Alliance, a consortium of private, governmental and non-profit organizations striving to create a comprehensive digital payments infrastructure in developing nations, especially with at-risk populations such as displaced persons. (Disclosure: The Better Than Cash Alliance provided airfare and accommodations while in Jordan.)
About the author: Molly McCluskey is a contributing writer to the Diplomatic Courier, and a freelance journalist dividing her time between Europe and the U.S. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.