Completed Research

UNHCR Jordan’s Biometric Cash Assistance Program for Syrian Refugees

University of Toronto

In partnership with a local bank, and with support from a range of stakeholders, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) developed the world’s first iris-scanning cash-assistance program for refugees in Jordan. Via an established network of iris-scanning enabled ATMs, the program provides monthly income support to the most vulnerable refugee families living in urban areas to help them meet their basic needs such as rent, food, utilities and health. Approximately 33,000 families have received support since 2012 with thousands more on the waitlist.

The Hard to Reach

Urban Syrian refugees who reside outside of traditional camp settings.

Key Takeaways

Low overhead costs mean that roughly $0.95 of every $1 donated to UNHCR Jordan’s biometric cash assistance program goes directly to Syrian refugees.

  1. Private sector organizations possess expertise and infrastructure that can be leveraged to provide highly technical services to UNHCR’s cash assistance delivery programs, thus improving program cost efficiency.
  2. By prioritizing ease and security, UNHCR Jordan ensures that an already vulnerable population does not experience undue difficulty when seeking refugee services or withdrawing cash assistance.
  3. Collaboration among humanitarian organizations creates cost savings and helps to ensure that Syrian refugees receive the most comprehensive support possible.
  4. Precise targeting of beneficiaries allows UNHCR Jordan to ensure the most vulnerable Syrian refugees receive cash assistance. Targeting is made possible through the collection of detailed data and the creation of vulnerability indicators.


This research was made possible through the Reach Alliance, a partnership between the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. Research was also funded by the Canada Research Chairs program and the Ralph and Roz Halbert Professorship of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. The authors of this report would like to express our gratitude and appreciation to those we met and interviewed in Jordan; staff at UNHCR and the UN; NGOs; implementing partners; private businesses; and government officials. During the ongoing refugee crisis, where many have been working long hours to support those in need, we are so grateful that you made the time to share your insights with us.

This research was vetted and received approval from the Ethics Review Board at the University of Toronto.