Big push or hard pushed: livelihoods support in protracted crises

Published on 7 April 2022

Image of Carolina Szyp

Carolina Szyp

Research Officer

Image of Rachel Sabates-Wheeler

Rachel Sabates-Wheeler

Research Fellow

Image of Jeremy Lind

Jeremy Lind

Research Fellow

There have been multiple efforts in recent years to introduce cash transfers complemented by livelihood support in protracted crisis contexts. This approach to strengthening livelihoods is known as ‘cash-plus’, graduation, or economic inclusion programming. While cash alone can assist people with meeting basic needs (e.g. in improving consumption, assets, and food security), some research argues that cash is often limited by access and supply-side barriers which may generate exclusion, and that cash-plus provides a ‘big push’ alternative that enables resilient outcomes and secondary impacts. Based on a multidimensional understanding of need, cash-plus complements the cash provision with additional inputs, services, and linkages to other services aimed at reducing these barriers – for example, when government systems and/ or services are not fully functional, or when certain people experience exclusion from them. There is a common assumption that cash complemented with other forms of support will, over time, contribute to creating ‘productive’ and ‘sustainable’ livelihoods for beneficiaries, even once assistance is withdrawn (see for example the BRAC approach to graduation since 2002).

Evidence of cash-plus programmes often shows that a substantial number of participants graduate with lasting impacts in income, savings and food security, with varying outcomes on other indicators. However, this evidence rarely comes from contexts of protracted crises. In fact, little learning has been generated in these contexts about how best to design and implement cash-plus programmes effectively to promote and transform livelihoods, and under what conditions, where markets and systems are dysfunctional. Cash-plus provision is often tailored primarily for households and individuals: little attention is paid to the broader economic, political, and security systems in which people live and work. Whether programmes are successful, and whether they are even possible, depends on a wider environment – including available infrastructure, physical security, accessible markets. While most analyses of cash-plus come from stable settings, some evidence from non-stable contexts is starting to come to light, such as in the recent Fragility Forum with the graduation approach in particular.

In our recent BASIC Research thematic paper and brief on cash-plus, the intensity of conflict – a defining feature of many protracted crises – is considered alongside the strength of state-led social protection systems to develop broad contextual categories and therefore assess the appropriateness of cash-plus programmes. These contexts were selected for analysis because they are characterised by overlapping challenges of protracted conflict, recurrent climate shocks, and forced displacement. Our aim was to determine whether clear differences exist in the provision of methods and types of complementary support, and to gauge whether these cash-plus programmes are fit for protracted crises settings. Through a review of 42 cash-plus programmes in 17 fragile and conflict-affected countries, we found that:

  • Evaluation of social assistance livelihoods programmes in protracted crises is very patchy and mostly focused on short-term impacts. Rigorous and impartial evidence is limited.
  • Most programmes combine design features seen in more peaceful contexts. Skills training is the most common element found, followed by agricultural and livestock extension services, and access to finance. These components are not necessarily context-specific or adapted to situations of high violence.
  • The most common objective of cash-plus programmes is ‘livelihood promotion’, with relatively few incorporating objectives around resilience, social cohesion or mitigating the factors contributing to conflict.

Further research should focus on what elements are more likely to increase effectiveness in supporting livelihoods in crises, and critically reflect on how to link programmes to expand scale and reach. The extent to which transformation – including systems strengthening and conflict prevention – should be part of objectives, modalities and targeting of cash-plus in protracted crises should also be further examined. A key question that these findings and gaps pose is: How can social assistance best contribute to livelihoods that show greater resilience or adaptation to protracted conflict, climate shocks, and forced displacement?  Over the next three years, Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) Research plans to expand on existing work and investigate the knowledge gaps to answer this and other related questions.


Stay up to date with the latest publications, outputs, and activities of BASIC Research on LinkedIn.


Supported by


About this opinion

Related content