‘No Strings Attached”: Lessons from the Emergency Social Safety Net Program (ESSN) and Applications for U.S. Foreign Aid Policy in Turkey

By THO Team Member, Catherine Murphy

Cash assistance programs have gained traction in recent years as a way to get aid to those in need while still preserving autonomy and independence. 

In Turkey, due to the number of Syrian and other refugees seeking safety, the E.U. has adopted a large-scale cash assistance program called the ESSN. Since its inception in 2016, the ESSN has achieved large-scale programmatic success, and provides a critical case study in successful cash aid programs to refugees in Turkey.

The U.S. should adopt the lessons from the success of the ESSN to expand their cash aid programs, to both improve humanitarian outcomes for refugees, as well as strengthen U.S.-Turkey relations.

What is cash assistance in a foreign aid context?

‘Cash assistance’ is a general term that refers to monetary aid given to individuals or groups in order to support needs like housing, food, or medical care (1). In the foreign policy sphere, these programs are typically funded by individual governments, supranational organizations, or by international aid groups. 

There are two different types of cash assistance. ‘Conditional cash assistance’ refers to money that has requirements, such as limitations on what it can be spent on, or the requirement for certain actions from the beneficiary. ‘Unconditional cash assistance’ refers to cash given to individuals or populations without strings attached (2). 

What is the Emergency Social Safety Net?

The Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) is a cash assistance program for refugees in Turkey funded in majority by the European Union (EU) that began in 2016 and has been routinely extended since (3). The program provides monthly cash payments to impacted populations, with a particular focus on single-parent families, refugees with disabilities, and the elderly. Families receive 155 Turkish Lira per family member per month loaded onto a debit card. There are no restrictions on what the funds can be used for, and most families use the funds for rent, food, transportation, or medical expenses (4). 

Overall, the project has been successful in alleviating issues of poverty among refugees. The Turkish Red Crescent (TRC), which has been the main administrator of the program since 2020, reported that from April 2020 through March 2021, the program provided over 1.8 million people with 3.4 billion Turkish Lira (5). Additionally, the TRC reports quality-of-life improvements, including that 77% of participants reported managing a healthy diet, and 80% of families are able to afford basic necessities like food and rent (6)(7). A survey conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) noted similarly positive findings, including that between May 2017 and September 2019, the proportion of families where children had to work was cut in half and the number of families able to cover all of their basic needs increased from 1 in 4 to 1 in 2 (8). 

Overall, although no program is perfect, the ESSN provides a critical case study in how a cash assistance program can be successful for refugees in Turkey. 

Does the U.S. have any similar programs to the ESSN? How can developing a more robust cash assistance program improve relations between the U.S. and Turkey?

For context, the U.S. has a broad foreign aid portfolio around the world, including Turkey, managed primarily by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). According to USAID’s Foreign Assistance Database, Turkey received about $6.9 million USD in aid in 2019, which is the most recent year that is fully reported (9). Although difficult to say with complete certainty due to redactions made by USAID to comply with the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016, it does not appear that the U.S. has a cash assistance program for refugees in Turkey (10).  

Despite the lack of a cash assistance program for refugees in Turkey, USAID broadly supports them. The agency notes that cash assistance programs “may have significant positive impacts on many development priorities targeted by USAID such as monetary poverty, household investment, school enrollment, health service use, female empowerment, nutrition outcomes, and stimulating the local economy”. The same article goes on to note that “[cash assistance programs] are relatively economical to administer, with a large portion of the grant reaching the pockets of the beneficiaries” (11). Additionally, USAID is explicitly committed to supporting refugees, particularly those of Syrian origin, noting that ‘alleviating human suffering’ of Syrians is central to USAID’s goals (12). 

In conjunction with the humanitarian need and the alignment with USAID goals, the development of a cash assistance program is a mechanism for improving U.S./Turkey relations. 

Turkey has seen a significant rise in the number of refugees over the last decade, particularly due to the Syrian Civil War (13). With this increase, Turkey has struggled to be able to adequately support the needs of those seeking safety in its borders. This has led to increasing tension within communities, at times escalating to violence.

Although by no means a magic bullet, cash assistance programs help refugees integrate into their new communities through participating in the local economy, getting children into school, and generally reducing strain on local areas. These ultimately can lead to less violence. 

If the United States adopts a cash assistance program for refugees in Turkey, they can assist their ally in addressing a growing domestic challenge, while providing critical humanitarian aid. This can improve relations and good-will between the two countries, and foster opportunities for future collaboration. 

What can the ESSN teach the U.S.?

The ESSN gives an excellent framework for the potential development of a U.S. cash assistance program through three critical lessons. 

1. Cash assistance programs must be facilitated through local partners:

The ESSN is a European Union-funded program, but has a variety of partners, including the World Food Programme (WFP), the Turkish Red Crescent (TRC), and the Turkish Ministry of Family and Social Policies (MoFSP) (15). By using partners based in Turkey familiar with the situation of refugees, the program is more targeted and successful. Combining this on-the-ground knowledge with the TRC’s organizational capacity and the expertise of decades of aid work, the program can avoid the pitfalls of starting from scratch in a region. By formalizing cooperation with Turkish-based organizations like the ESSN does, the US can ensure the efficacy of a future cash aid program and provide targeted, culturally-appropriate, and knowledgeable support. 

2. The program must be designed with logistical and administrative support and scalability in mind:

The ESSN is successful in no small part due to the design of its administrative and logistical functions, with an eye to being adaptable to changes. The program had to make significant alterations to their operations in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the March 2021 program report, the TRC highlights how they moved from doing primarily in-person outreach on the ground to a more virtual context. From March 2020-2021, the TRC and related partners communicated with 29.3 million SMS text messages to beneficiaries and fielded over 170,000 phone calls. They were also able to hand-deliver 684 cash assistance cards to households who were not able to leave their homes due to COVID-19 protocols, ensuring the families still received the assistance they needed while complying with safety standards (16). This program’s ability to quickly scale up their existing administrative and logistical processes to accommodate the changes COVID-19 brought is a reflection of its strength and should be replicated for a potential US program.

3. The program must provide unconditional aid:

ESSN aid is unconditional, meaning that individuals are not restricted in how they use the funds given, and the program itself is designed for the purposes of allowing refugees the dignity of providing for their families. 

ESSN participants are given a card that functions identically to a debit card, meaning that individuals can purchase from local shops and participate in the local community they are now a part of (17). This model also helps prevent wasted funds, as refugees are able to decide what the best use of funds is for their household. Additionally, unconditional cash assistance is more easily administered. The ESSN debit card is automatically loaded with money for the month, making it easier both for the logistics of the group distributing the aid as well as the beneficiaries of the program. 

The ESSN Debit Card concept provides a roadmap for success for a US cash assistance program, as it limits overhead costs, ensures beneficiary dignity, and prevents wasted aid dollars. 

In Conclusion

The United States has a moral and diplomatic imperative to establish support for refugees in Turkey. Refugees who have fled to Turkey often come with very little, and require support to get on their feet in a new country. By providing support to refugees, the U.S. can also strengthen relations with their ally Turkey through alleviating the strain on existing resources and stimulating interactions with the local economy. 

Given the success of cash assistance programs generally, as well as the model of the ESSN program, the US has a clear path forward to creating a cash assistance program to support refugees in Turkey, and it is a path the U.S. should take.


1) Other terms for cash assistance include: cash aid and cash transfers. All of these terms are used interchangeably in this piece.  

2) “Conditionality in Cash Transfers: UNICEF’s Approach”, UNICEF, https://www.unicef.org/easterncaribbean/media/731/file/Conditionality-in-Cash-Transfers-UNICEF's-Approach-2016.pdf 

3) “The Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN): Offering a LIfeline to Vulnerable Refugees in Turkey”, European Union, https://ec.europa.eu/echo/essn_en 

4) “The Emergency Social Safety Net”, World Food Programme, https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000104792/download/ 

5) “Emergency Social Safety Net: Homepage”, Turkish Red Crescent, https://www.ifrc.org/emergency-social-safety-net-essn 

6) “Emergency Social Safety Net: March 2021 Report, Issue 12”, Turkish Red Crescent, https://www.ifrc.org/sites/default/files/202103_ESSNMonthlyReport.pdf 

7) “Turkey: Providing Cash Assistance to Over 1.5 Million Refugees through EU Funding”, Turkish Red Crescent, https://oldmedia.ifrc.org/ifrc/essn/ 

8) “Cash assistance from WFP and the European Union helps keep Syrian refugees in Turkey out of poverty”, United Nations World Food Programme, https://www.wfp.org/news/cash-assistance-wfp-and-european-union-helps-keep-syrian-refugees-turkey-out-poverty 

9) “USAID Foreign Assistance Database”, United States Agency for International Development, https://foreignassistance.gov/ 

10) “H.R.3766 - Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016“, Congress.gov, https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/3766/text 

11) “Cash Benchmarking: A New Approach to Aid Effectiveness”, United States Agency for International Development, https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/CashBenchmarkingSummaryNov2020.pdf 

12) “Syria Fact Sheet”, United States Agency for International Development, https://www.usaid.gov/syria/fact-sheets/syria-fact-sheet 

13) “Figures at a Glance”, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Turkey, https://www.unhcr.org/tr/en/figures-at-a-glance 

14) “Refugees in Fear as Sentiment Turns Against Them in Turkey”, Associated Press, https://www.unhcr.org/tr/en/figures-at-a-glance 

15) “The Emergency Social Safety Net: Helping Refugees in Turkey”, World Food Programme, https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000104792/download/ 

16) “Emergency Social Safety Net: March 2021 Report, Issue 12”, Turkish Red Crescent, https://www.ifrc.org/sites/default/files/202103_ESSNMonthlyReport.pdf 

17) “The ESSN Card: Homepage”, ESSNcard.com, https://www.essncard.com/en/about-card/