Remittances in humanitarian crises

Working and discussion papers
March 2019

Increased migration has led to rapid growth in remittance payments over the past decade. Worth over $613 billion globally, remittances provide a significant flow of money to individuals and households caught up in humanitarian crises, totalling over $52 billion for the largest 20 humanitarian aid recipient countries in 2017.

Partly through co-opting similar channels that remitters use, such as hawala networks, in cash transfer programming, the humanitarian sector has developed a growing interest in remittances in crisis. As one of a wider range of income sources that affected people have access to, they have also attracted attention in the context of increasingly overstretched funding for humanitarian assistance. They are also, however, not widely understood by humanitarian actors.

The uses, responsiveness and coverage of remittances mean they function differently to humanitarian aid in crisis settings. Despite being used as a safety net for many, those receiving remittances are not necessarily the most vulnerable. Their inequitable distribution may have consequences for gender dynamics, rural and urban divides and meeting needs in crisis settings. 

Most importantly, although they may be spent in similar ways to traditional aid, remittances are fundamentally private capital: a flow within one household or between family members motivated by the micro-economic interests of the sender. In addition, the remittance sender is often in a vulnerable economic and social position, and their spending may not be as fungible as presumed.

As such, remittances should not be considered straightforward alternative sources of aid in the same manner as philanthropic giving or new investment models that seek greater investment from the private sector. Caution must be exercised when attempting to conceptualise them as another potential source of humanitarian funding, or seeking to track remittances in a similar manner to aid flows. However, greater understanding of remittances may inspire new ways of fundraising, as well as emphasising the networks of support and dependency of people caught up in humanitarian crises.

Read the research