Against the background of the ongoing conflict in Syria, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan is implementing the world’s first refugee cash assistance program that leverages iris scanning technology. Many Syrian refugees in Jordan are affected by poverty, with 66% of Syrian refugees in Jordan estimated to be living below the poverty line of 68 JOD per person/month ($96 USD). As part of their cash assistance program, UNHCR Jordan uses vulnerability assessments and biometric verification to ensure that cash support reaches those individuals who are most in need. However, UNHCR Jordan faces resource constraints which prevent the organisation from providing cash assistance to all those who are eligible to receive it. In the context of these resource constraints, the cost efficiency of UNHCR Jordan’s cash transfers, with 97-98% of money donated going directly to the refugees, ensures that more money reaches the refugees themselves. It also makes this program stand out as one that successfully reaches the hard to reach.
The focus of our research will be on developing an understanding of how this cash assistance program is being delivered to its intended recipients. We have identified several aspects of this case that could plausibly account for the effective identification, targeting, and delivery of this cost-effective cash assistance program. The features we have identified so far are:
Partnership between UNHCR Jordan, Cairo Amman Bank, and Iris Guard:
Literature on best practices in the cash transfer space indicates that partnerships between funders, governments, and the private sector are valuable in ensuring cash is delivered efficiently and securely. UNHCR’s partnership with Cairo Amman Bank and Iris Guard has enabled the organization to use iris scans as a novel form of identity verification. The ability to deliver cash directly to refugees (minimizing the use of sub-contractors), the elimination of the need for presence checks, and advantageous bank fees obtained through the Common Cash Facility appear to be products of this partnership, and we believe that they contribute to the programs’ cost effectiveness.
Registration with UNHCR:
When an individual registers with UNHCR Jordan, their biometric information is captured at that time. UNHCR Jordan appears to be leveraging its database of registered Syrians to facilitate assessments for cash assistance. However, given the large number of urban refugees present in Jordan, and the Government of Jordan’s evolving policies on the issue of Asylum Seeker Certificates to Syrians in urban areas, we expect that UNHCR faces challenges in ensuring that all Syrians eligible for their support are registered with them. Through our interviews, we aim to develop a better understanding of how Syrians in Jordan are informed about and encouraged to register with UNHCR, and how the registration process is implemented.
Home visits and vulnerability assessment:
A vulnerability assessment framework has been developed, featuring 15 indicators of vulnerability. As part of UNHCR Jordan’s home-visits program, every newly registered refugee family receives an in-home interview. This allows UNHCR to assess the household’s vulnerability, and make a determination on whether the family is eligible for UNHCR’s cash assistance program. Reports indicate that there is an appeals process, managed in partnership with WFP.
Communication between UNHCR and refugees:
To conduct a home visit, UNHCR must be able to locate the family being visited. While some sources have noted that the home visit takes place 2-3 months after registration, other sources have noted that the home visit can occur up to 7 months after registration. After a home visit, UNHCR must also provide a family with information on the outcome of their assessment, and if eligible for cash support, information on when they can expect disbursements. Through our research, we hope to gain a better understanding of how UNHCR locates and communicates with those registered.
Cash assistance is provided through a network of pre-existing iris-scanning ATMs operated by Cairo Amman Bank. UNHCR has also developed a cash on wheels service, driving mobile ATMs to areas where stationary ATMs are less accessible. Further, iris-scanning technology has also been integrated into payment systems at local stores, allowing refugees to scan their iris at the till, and making the transaction cash-less.
Ongoing monitoring and evaluation:
UNHCR Jordan appears to have developed a rigourous system for process and impact monitoring, referred to as post-distribution monitoring. While we have been unable to locate any reports generated from PDMs, we know that at minimum this tool tracks what the cash assistance is spent on (spending on basic needs is disaggregated further into categories including rent, children’s needs, and food and health). UNHCR also worked with World Bank in 2014 to conduct an impact assessment of the cash assistance program, tracking the rate of inclusion and exclusion errors, and also the percentage of individuals moving across the poverty line after receiving cash assistance.
UNHCR and innovation culture:
The initial plans for the adoption and use of iris-scanning technology appear to have originated from within UNHCR Jordan’s team. After the initial success demonstrated by UNHCR Jordan in rapidly registering and providing cash assistance to the influx of Syrian refugees, their approach has spread to other UNHCR country teams. At an organization-wide level, UNHCR has put an emphasis on the value of innovation to help improve the services and support provided to refugees. One manifestation of the support for innovation has been the creation of “UNHCR Innovation”, a team that aims to “amplify, connect, and explore” opportunities for innovation within the organization. Through our research, we aim to better understand how UNHCR Jordan’s plans for biometric capture were developed, championed, and supported within the organisation. We also hope to gain an understanding of whether and how UNHCR Innovation has been involved in UNHCR Jordan’s adoption of biometric capture and their cash assistance program.