Top-Down approach impedes Aid to Refugees

By Marina Naanouh | Jul 19 2021

Refugee aid has not always been framed the way we see it today. Scholars have written about a shift in the approach to refugee assistance that accompanied a shift in the “institutional conceptualization of refugees as workers in need of resettlement to victims in need of comprehensive assistance.”[1] The new approach materialized in full force while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international organizations began offering assistance in Africa following World War II and was characterized by a shift from a bottom-up to a top-down approach.[2]While a bottom-up approach prioritizes the “self-defined needs and interests” of the refugees themselves, making them the primary decision-makers in how they receive aid and assistance, a top-down approach is characterized by restrictive and rigid structures that largely separate refugees from decision-making processes in structures, policies and programmes that directly affect them.[3] This mode of aid assistance is both inefficient and ineffective as it often fails to meet the full range of needs of affected populations as well as wastes resources implementing flawed aid programmes. The international aid system has also been linked to a framework of racism and colonization in which power and control over decision-making and resources have been concentrated with a relatively small number of donors and International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) from the Global North.[4]

Taking a specific example from international aid for refugees in Lebanon, the World Food Programme (WFP) had long employed a food voucher programme for Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Once the paper vouchers proved too vulnerable to re-selling by refugees, who clearly preferred unrestricted cash to restricted food vouchers only redeemable at specific WFP-approved shops[5], the WFP employed e-vouchers, which were then also circumvented to become a source of cash. The WFP itself was aware of this phenomenon and, in a 2015 2-year assessment of its voucher-based food assistance programming, acknowledged the phenomenon of some shops benefiting due to “beneficiaries who sell part of the goods purchased with e-cards to raise cash for other needs”, however the report dubs this “not statistically significant”.[6] Comically, the WFP was still debating the issue of unrestricted cash versus restricted food vouchers years later, in a 2017 assessment report titled “Food-restricted Voucher Or Unrestricted Cash? How To Best Support Syrian Refugees In Jordan And Lebanon?”, which did indeed show that, at least in Lebanon, cash produced far better food security results, stating that “the average Food Consumption Score (FCS) was significantly higher in the cash group than in the voucher group, as was the percentage of beneficiaries having an “acceptable” FCS.”[7] In fact, WFP’s stubborn use of food e-voucher delayed the development of a more unified cross-agency cash-based single card platform for basic needs assistance in Lebanon.[8] The needs and preferences of refugees, clearly expressed and seen from the very beginning, were actively ignored, debated and dismissed, even as the food voucher programme, a costly operation to implement in the first place, showed signs of being ineffective.

Furthermore, even the way grants and aid to local organizations is implemented shows gaps in the way refugees are treated. In an article about aid to the Sahrawi refugee camp, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh flags that the celebration of the “ideal” scenario for gender equality and gender mainstreaming in the camps conceals the reality of the unmet needs of the camps’ inhabitants.[9] In fact, local organizations tend to mirror the goals and deliverables of international organizations and donors (particularly those building on former colonial relationships, as with Spain in Western Sahara) in order to keep receiving funding, even as that creates more inequality and causes other marginalized groups within the camp to be ignored.[10] This is echoed by the above-mentioned report on Decolonizing Aid which states that “Aid flows between former colonial powers and former colonised regions often mirror their past colonial relationships, with decision-making power concentrated in the Global North.”[11]  The report also flags that “structural racism benefits organisations in the Global North and also those from the Global South who know how to ‘play’ the system.”[12] This is exemplified in Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s article through the National Union of Sahrawi Women (NUSW) which international aid organizations have dubbed a “good” model of refugees, rewarding them for adapting and conforming to their (INGOs) needs, to the detriment of “bad” refugees who do not, or cannot, check all their box.[13]

The relationship between refugees and aid providers has been problematic ever since the large-scale implementation of a top-down approach to humanitarian assistance. While it is true that one risks oversimplifying the issue at hand by suggesting a reframing exercise in how we conceptualize refugees, the fact remains that the way refugees are treated is largely due to the racist and colonial undertones of international humanitarian aid. Simply allowing refugees to take lead on decision-making would have gone a long way towards avoiding the food vouchers debacle in Lebanon, while de-centering donor priorities in favor of centering refugee priorities in Sahrawi could’ve helped avoid the creation of a dishonest “ideal” image as well as aid recipient hierarchies within the camp.


[1] Evan Elise Easton-Calabria, “From Bottom-Up to Top-Down: The ‘Pre-History’ of Refugee Livelihoods Assistance from 1919 to 1979,” Journal of Refugee Studies 28, no. 3 (September 2015): 412–36,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Time to Decolonise Aid: Insights and Lessons from a Global Consultation” (Peace Direct, May 10, 2021),

[5] Jon Bennett, “Failure to Adapt: Aid in Jordan and Lebanon,” Forced Migration Review, no. 44 (September 2014): 74–75.

[6] Oscar Maria Caccavale, Tobias Flämig, and Marine Lalique, “Exploring Food Assistance Programmes: Evidence for Lebanon” (World Food Programme, November 2015),

[7] The Boston Consulting Group, “Food-Restricted Voucher or Unrestricted Cash? How to Best Support Syrian Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon?” (World Food Programme, April 2017).

[8] Gabrielle Smith and Lili Mohiddin, “A Review of Evidence of Humanitarian Cash Transfer Programming in Urban Areas: Annex 3,” (International Institute for Environment and Development, 2015).

[9] Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, “‘Ideal’ Refugee Women and Gender Equality Mainstreaming in the Sahrawi Refugee Camps: ‘Good Practice’ for Whom?,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 29, no. 2 (March 1, 2010): 64–84,

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Time to Decolonise Aid: Insights and Lessons from a Global Consultation” (Peace Direct, May 10, 2021),

[12] Ibid.

[13] Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, “‘Ideal’ Refugee Women and Gender Equality Mainstreaming in the Sahrawi Refugee Camps: ‘Good Practice’ for Whom?,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 29, no. 2 (March 1, 2010): 64–84,


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