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Over the years, we have seen the effectiveness of voucher programs in disaster response ( DR): building supply vouchers to help people after an earthquake in Lombok, building and kitchen supply vouchers after flooding in Sentani, and food and building supply vouchers after rioting destroyed much of the town of Wamena. In March 2020, in response to the Covid-19 crisis, we began a food voucher program, as well as, a vegetable seed voucher program.

Introduction to a DR Voucher Program

Money is deposited with a trust-worthy merchant in a local store, ideally close to the disaster. (It may be possible in some situations to create vouchers with a store without depositing money ahead of time, but instead reimbursing any vouchers that have been redeemed.) Of course, this store must consistently carry stock of the building supplies, staple foods, kitchen supplies, garden seeds, or the materials you are offering. Official vouchers, that can’t be duplicated, are printed. (See voucher design section below.) One or two people on the disaster response team (including local people), survey and interview key community people, locating and distributing the vouchers to truly needy people. Recipients then go to the store themselves, choosing needed supplies with dignity and pride. After the expiration date passes, someone from the organization or DR team compares notes with the store owner and finds out if, and if so why, any recipients did not come to the store. (In all our voucher programs almost all vouchers have been redeemed.)

Benefits of a Voucher Program

  • Enables the recipient to choose what they need based on their individual or family’s situation. In one case we had planned on purchasing plywood (triplex) for those affected by an earthquake, but very few ended up choosing that commodity. Instead, they wanted cement, hand tools, and nails. It would have been a mistake to provide what they didn’t really want.
  • Enables recipients to shop for themselves, fostering dignity, pride and empowerment. Shopping for one’s needs is a much different experience than standing in long lines feeling shame at once again being dependent on outside aid.
  • Stimulates the local economy . Local vendors benefit when supplies are purchased locally rather than shipping in from outside the affected area. This action helps local businesses in the disaster area rebuild rather than hurts them. Sometimes when supplies are shipped in, they create what has been referred to as “the 2nd disaster” because local businesses can’t compete with these resources and end up marginalized.
  • Prevents organization or DR teams from dealing with the difficulty and risks associated with purchase, storage and delivery of goods. These issues can be some of the biggest burdens in disaster response.
  • It’s simple. In addition to the DR team, it’s easy to call village heads or local pastors together, distribute vouchers to them, and instruct them to find the people in their sphere of influence with the most need. If appropriate, vouchers in pastors’ hands gives them an opportunity to sit, and talk, and often pray together with the recipient.
  • Opportunity for corruption is minimized. No money or goods are passed from an organization, through a third party, into the hands of a recipient. In DR, there is often a huge “drain” of money and supplies by those responsible for distribution.
  • Creativity is encouraged. When providing seed vouchers to farmers, they are often bold enough to try seeds they have not previously utilized.
  • They are subtle and show love and care. Direct delivery of goods to a recipient in a community often causes a lot of attention and possible jealously.
  • Food, blankets, and other commodities do not become contaminated, stolen or ruined in storage or transportation. All items remain at the store until redeemed by recipients which reduces loss for the DR team.

Challenges of a Voucher Program

  • If there is wide-spread destruction (like the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004), voucher programs are obviously not possible.
  • It is important to consider the implications of distributing vouchers for the DR team or benefactor’s identity. How they are being perceived by the community may be affected and should be evaluated in each context.
  • There can be a bias to only distribute vouchers to villagers or communities that a DR team knows. Working with local leaders of both genders, religions and races will help to combat this issue.
  • As disaster response turns to rehabilitation, there may be a tendency for local people to continue to ask the point person or the DR team for voucher assistance. A voucher program should not have a single person handling voucher distributions and should include the concluding date of the program on the voucher. It is also wise not to give out vouchers at the DR operations center.
  • Sometimes the most in need recipients don’t have the strength, means or vehicles needed to collect the supplies.

Partnering with Local Merchants

  • A store owner must feel they are filling an important role as a provider of not just goods, but also dignity, pride, empowerment, hope, love and compassion.
  • They must be willing to take on additional administrative and record-keeping work. They will have to keep track of the names of recipients, know the ending date of the program, and match voucher amounts with the goods chosen. (When depositing money with a merchant ahead of time, this administrative work can be reduced by asking stores to turn in their “coupons” or vouchers, for weekly reimbursement.)
  • They must be committed to keeping fair prices and a well-stocked store. It is reasonable to ask the merchant to offer a small discount. They are receiving a lot of free advertising and added business.

In the voucher programs we have initiated, we have not had significant problems. Honesty among store owners was strong and almost all of them felt blessed to have been involved.

Voucher Design

Design a voucher which can’t be duplicated. Here are some suggested components:

  • Create or purchase a perforated, numbered voucher book (with a slip that stays in the voucher book).
  • Name and logo of the donating organization.
  • Name of merchant with an address and phone number (this represents a local partnership).
  • Be sure to include on the voucher the amount the recipient can receive and the expiration date by which the voucher must be redeemed.
  • Signature and stamp.
  • If desired and appropriate for your context, include a verse or sentence on the bottom like, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • On the small slip that remains in the book, record the name of the recipient and their address. (This enables someone to check with the store, to see if the recipient has redeemed their voucher.)

Phone Code Vouchers

Some organizations use online apps to send out codes via smart phone to recipients who can redeem them at participating stores. (This is a helpful option in a contagious health crisis in order to avoid excessive human contact. Of course, as a rule, cautious human contact with recipients is always preferred.)

Distribute vouchers to those in true need, but also be givers of dignity, pride, empowerment, hope, love and compassion in difficult times.

Maybe you have had experience in a voucher program of your own and could contribute your thoughts to this conversation. If so, your comments are welcome.


I am working on a curriculum design that targets NGOs, donors, pastors, teachers with systems for beginning development in what we would normally classify as strictly a relief setting. The curriculum is not designed to avoid giving things away but to find creative ways of creating exchanges which preserve dignity and over time can be introduced as appropriate to reduce the relief and hone in on the development side much earlier so that entitlement and dependency don’t set in. Here in South Sudan where I am doing agricultural development the culture is predisposed to dependency and entitlement due to a “fail safe” generosity system that requires you to give to others if you have more than others or if someone see you have more than them and they have a need. There is already a justification for expecting that if someone else has more they should share and give at least part of what you have to them. This has been a good feature of the culture and has helped them through difficult times as a community sharing what they have but the down side is that it predisposes them to dependency/entitlement because of the high propensity to assume that outside donors have an endless supply of things to give them and they should expect that the supply should continue. If we build in means of exchanging things or find mutually beneficial ways of blessing one another then we can cause the local economy to come closer and closer to simulating a healthy exchange of goods and services and some people may discover that they learn new skills in marketing or business. One of the problems is that this approach may take more people to administer but you just do what you can and also try to get as many of the local people to participate through the church. Those in the church that have good stewardship or management skills can train others to better steward local resources and opportunities. The curriculum is called Relief from Relief: The Quest for Mutual Blessing. My email is if anyone wants to contact me directly but I will try to monitor the replies to this. There are ways of “thinking outside the box” and begin development in a relief setting and we can discuss some of the approaches that are the most practical and best preserve dignity.