Various nations in Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe have experienced widespread unrest, civil wars, and political instability over the past four decades — resulting in the concentration of millions of refugees concentrated around these areas. These large-scale movements usually strain host community economies and often lead to rampant and chronic food insecurity among refugees. As relief agencies have acknowledged that traditionally-provided direct food aid is unsustainable in protracted relief, they have turned to more effective alternatives such as vouchers and cash to address the various needs of refugees. However, various studies suggest that vouchers issued to refugees, including e-vouchers are often used in ways that are unintended or unauthorized by the relief agencies, and subsequently discouraged, prohibited, and/or criminalized. The lack of access to data on the daily behaviors and covert practices renders mainstream monitoring and evaluation efforts, including the measurement of the extent of diversion, difficult if not impossible. The worldwide push for e-vouchers underscores a crucial need for PRM and other agencies in relief situations to better understand conditions that contribute to the emergence and extent of value conversion, so as to enhance voucher effectiveness. This project used ethnographic methods to elicit data that will enable the measurement of value conversion in refugee camps in Kenya and Serbia.


  • Conduct a literature review on e-voucher programs.
  • Gather data through ethnography and survey on how stakeholders negotiate the use of vouchers with respect to their own needs and in concert with local realities.
  • Conduct research to understand complexities of value conversion and develop a tool kit to measure the extent of voucher diversion.
  • Coordinate with relief organizations to inform programs and policies based on research findings.


  • The majority of voucher recipients reported no value conversion (65% in Serbia and 91% in Kenya).
  • The majority of voucher recipients reported that vouchers were better than in-kind aid (95% in Serbia, 80% in Kenya and gave more dignity and choice.
  • Significant majorities of recipients predominantly use the voucher-program as intended, using the appropriate exchange platforms and staying within the restrictions of the programs.
  • Most value conversion happens due to difficulty or inconvenience of use, or due to dire need or emergencies.
  • Converted value received by the recipients is used for food, essential Non-Food Items (NFI), medicine, security, and education.
  • The more the amount given, the less the proportion and likelihood of any value conversion.
  • If refugees and asylum seekers have some access to external sources of cash (employment, remittances, savings), they tend not to practice value conversion.


  • Give cash to refugees, if possible.
  • If cash cannot be directly given, increase the number of shops in locations of refugee areas that accept vouchers.
    • In Serbia, since the MoneyCard program is a pre-existing one, this will be hard, as merchants have to be persuaded to take on the program. Small shops are not equipped for electronic transfer.
    • In Kenya, the voucher is piggy-backed on M-PESA (a mobile phone-based money transfer).Measures must be taken to prevent the bottlenecking of voucher shops due to the Local Trader Selection Committee appointed by the World Food Program Country Director – which creates a situation wherein local traders claim that they have been sidelined and their expertise ignored.
  • Access to voucher lines should be made easier so the line itself does not become a commodity that can be rented or exchanged – as this has given those with access leverage over those without it, creating a potentially abusive situation.


  • A final report was completed in December 2018. The University of Notre Dame also produced three podcasts discussing the research.
    • Part one of the podcasts series outlines the background of that constitutes a refugee crises, what the role of humanitarian aid is in alleviating the effects of these crises, and what a voucher-based assistance program entails.
    • The second podcast delves into the research findings, discussing how although voucher programs are an effective way of giving financial assistance to refugees in Serbia and Kenya, they also have their downsides.
    • The final podcast explores the implications of his findings, noting that the value provided by the vouchers is still likely to go towards the kinds of goods (groceries, health products) that the vouchers are intended to purchase. Despite concerns that the vouchers will be abused for frivolous purchases, the research concludes that the voucher programs are the most effective way to give substantial aid to refugees in Serbia and Kenya.

See Also

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future