Syria Crisis

Direct Cash, Is This The Future Of Humanitarian Aid?

Experiments among Syrian refugees in Lebanon are testing the best way to help those in need.

The Lebanon Cash Consortium began to provide cash assistance to refugees two years ago
The Lebanon Cash Consortium began to provide cash assistance to refugees two years ago
Eugénie Bastié

BEKAA VALLEY — Across this stretch of eastern Lebanon, some 360,000 Syrian refugees have been living in muddy informal settlements scattered across villages. Whether crammed into flats or stuffed into tents, they are part of the one million Syrians who now live in Lebanon.

Although they registered with the UN Refugee Agency when they arrived, they are not recognized by authorities in Lebanon, which hasn't signed the Geneva Conventions. These refugees don't have the right to work though some of them do so illegally. To survive, they rely on humanitarian aid. World Food Program coupons allow them to buy $27 worth of food per person every month in certified shops. The UN Refugee Agency gives them $40 of fuel for heating.

The Lebanon Cash Consortium, a group of NGOs that includes Acted, Care and World Vision International, began to provide cash assistance two years ago. Eligible families are given a MasterCard on which $175 is transferred every month. They can withdraw this amount at any ATM in the country, and are free to spend it as they so choose.

Issam Darwish, an undocumented Syrian who lives with his wife and three children in Lebanon, spends part of this meager sum in attorney fees, to get documents and passports. His 4-year-old daughter Yara was born in Lebanon but doesn't have official ID. Like her, about 44,000 children aged under 5 have been born to Syrian parents on Lebanese soil but remain undocumented. They are recognized neither by Syria nor by Lebanon.

Other refugees spend the cash they receive on medicine. Turkiya al Abdallah and her blind husband, who came from a village near the Syrian city of Homs, live in camp in El-Marj. They say they left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Turkiya broke her leg as they fled Syria, which required an expensive operation in Lebanon. With the cash, she says she also buys medicine for her hypertension and her husband's heart disease.

Attalah, who lives in the tent next to the Al Abdallahs, uses the money for heating, clothes for her children and "to buy meat, once or twice a month."

Eid Sattuf and his wife Nadine arrived in Lebanon in 2012. They have five children. The oldest is aged 11, the youngest is 3 months old. They spend the money on fuel, milk and sanitary towels. "Before, when I needed something, I didn't dare ask my husband but now I can," says Nadine with a smile.

Direct cash seems to be the future of humanitarian aid. It's now replacing bags of rice and food trucked from abroad. With the refugee crisis, Lebanon has become one of the pioneers of this type of aid, together with Turkey, which has started to develop it after striking a deal with the EU on containing migrants. The European Commission and its ECHO humanitarian program help fund the Lebanon Cash Consortium with a budget that skyrocketed to $92 million in 2016 as the migrant crisis took hold.

"The watchword since the 2015 crisis is that all humanitarian aid must be aimed at keeping refugees where they are," says Fabrice Balanche, who has conducted research on refugees in Lebanon.

For Fabrice Martin, who heads the ECHO program's local office in Lebanon, the option of offering no-strings-attached cash offers many advantages: It "avoids handouts and paternalism" and it "gives back beneficiaries some autonomy and dignity," he says.

"It's a minimal social protection for the most vulnerable of refugees," says Martin. Another advantage is that it's a direct investment in the local economy. Importing resources, on the other hand, requires costly logistics.

Is there any misuse? According to World Vision International, which implements the program for more than 7,000 Syrian families in the Bekaa Valley, there's no embezzlement. "All reports show that the cash is used for basic needs," says Yara Chehayed, the NGO's communication coordinator in Lebanon, who visits the camps several times a week.

A question remains: How long can it last? Many refugees are worried that aid might stop. The expiration date on their MasterCards is 2021. Refugees are told this has nothing to do with the end of the program.

"The return of refugees remains a goal," says Martin. "But it can only be achieved with massive help to rebuild their country of origin."

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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