We see it in almost every relief response: those life-saving NFI kits, food parcels (I don’t know why we insist on calling them “food baskets”), tarpaulins, jerry-cans, shoes, or whatever else… that we’d gone to a lot of trouble to distribute directly to refugees or survivors end up for sale in local markets.
We usually just take this for granted as one of those things that always seems to happen. In some cases (Tsunamiland and Haiti come to mind) we used the appearance of relief materiel in local markets as a crude proxy to tell us, “okay, we’ve distributed enough of _______.” But other than this and sometimes post-distribution monitoring (which typically looks at the absorption/resale on one specific thing, as opposed to the overall issue of resale), as far as I know, the phenomenon of beneficiaries monetizing (selling) relief goods/food has never been looked at in any kind of systematic way.
Both Fiona Terry (Condemned to Repeat) and Linda Polman (Crisis Caravan) discuss the issue of relief supplies ending up in local markets generally as a bad thing. And fair enough, I suppose, given that they’re talking primarily about situations where those relief items including food are either diverted before ever being distributed or confiscated from beneficiaries soon after distribution. While on one hand a certain amount of relief stuff ending up in the host economy is probably inevitable, and I have yet to meet a relief op of any size that had zero per cent inventory slippage. However, on the other it is our responsibility as humanitarians to do all we can to ensure that the stuff we give out is, first, the right stuff, and second, that it ends up in the hands of those for whom it is intended.
Even so I’d see this as rather different from the phenomenon of beneficiaries who receive distribution and then under no apparent duress sell it. What does it mean when we see this happening? Obviously there are many variables to consider, but here is part of what I think we need to be thinking:
More than anything else, we have to get past the simplistic explanations. Monetization of relief goods by beneficiaries isn’t necessarily a negative, but we need to watch it specifically, watch for it, and understand what it means in each context. We have to dig deeper than just, “well, there’s obviously something they want more…” We have to look more closely at the actual behavior, at what they’re selling, and what they’re buying with the proceeds. We need to systematically monitor and track and analyse monetization of relief goods. For starters, we need to look at/for two primary patterns (there are probably more):
1) Selling to buy something similar. They’re selling clothes to buy different clothes, food to buy different food. If we see this it means that we’re basically on the right path in assessing real beneficiary needs, but we probably need to look carefully at what’s driving us to distribute what we’re distributing rather than what they’re trading for. If we distribute wheat flour which they immediately sell in order to buy pasta, for example, then we need to ask ourselves the obvious question: why not just distribute pasta? (And if the answer to that is something about institutional needs or donor priorities, then we should probably be asking ourselves some deeper questions about why we’re there in the first place…)
2) Selling to buy something totally different. They’re selling the Plumpy’nut and buying SIM cards, or they’re selling the medium sized pot from the family kit and buying bednets. This is actually the larger, deeper problem. It is a signal that something is seriously flawed in either the logic of our selected intervention(s) or in the quality of our delivery. If we see this it means that at best we’re running a high cost, low impact cash-transfer program (more or less what distribution of TOMS shoes seems to have become in Haiti).
While monetization of relief goods doesn’t have to be a bad thing in every context, we should not let it become the norm. If we find it becoming our operative assumption that beneficiaries will sell what we distribute, then we need to be asking ourselves some hard questions about why we’re doing what we’re doing. We need to be reviewing the quality of our assessments, rechecking the validity of our analyses, checking the logic of our intervention. We also looking carefully at livelihoods options, cash transfer or voucher distribution and justifying our decisions to keep distributing.