This is the future of emergency relief
The Fort McMurray wildfire has evacuated over 80,000 people.
As the Fort McMurray wildfire continues to ravage western Canada, the Albertan government has started issuing debit cards pre-loaded with relief funds to families evacuated from their homes. Displaced adults receive $1,250, plus $500 for every child, and the funds, which come from donations to the Canadian Red Cross, are matched by the federal government. As of the end of Monday, Alberta had distributed over $65 million to more than 63,000 evacuees.
When announcing the program last week, Canadian Red Cross CEO Conrad Sauve called it “the most important cash transfer we have done in our history.” This is true not just because of the wildfire’s scale—it is expected to be the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history—but also because channeling aid directly into the pockets of its intended recipients remains a divisive approach in the humanitarian world.
Cash transfers were long thought to lack the security and efficiency of more traditional aid, which typically provides goods and services. However, successful governmental cash transfer programs implemented in response to disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and hurricanes Rita and Katrina in the U.S. have helped legitimize the approach in the eyes of aid agencies. Additionally, the failures of non-governmental aid in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake also served as a high-profile example of the ways traditional aid can create its own disastrous inefficiencies.
In the case of Alberta, the cash transfer program like the one being carried out now has both pragmatic and emotional benefits. The province’s emergency debit cards promote dignity and choice by allowing beneficiaries to determine their own needs, help stimulate local economies where emergency goods and services are already available, and support Canada’s pre-existing social safety net system. And considering the Fort McMurray fire is about to spread beyond 800,000 acres, that $65 million in circulation now looks like it’s just the start.