What We Do

Relief & Social Services
Relief & Social Services
We promote the development and self-reliance of less-advantaged members of the Palestine refugee community – especially women, children, people with disabilities and the elderly.

Social Safety Net programme

UNRWA provides eligible refugees in-kind food assistance and cash-based transfers under the Social Safety Net Programme (SSNP). The SSNP aims to contribute to poverty mitigation for Palestine refugees across the Agency’s fields of operations, with priority focus on the abject/extreme poor. The programme maintains a caseload of over 390,443 eligible Palestine refugees. The SSNP is small in scale and represents a modest contribution to household incomes of those served. It provides an important vehicle for identifying and tracking particularly poor families.

In addition to the regular social transfers provided under the SSNP, the programme offers supplementary selective cash assistance and preferred access to several UNRWA programmes. Selective cash is provided to Palestine refugees experiencing special circumstances or exhibiting exceptional need (with the exception of Gaza) and is issued on a case-by-case basis according to clear criteria and procedures established in the relief services instructions. SSNP recipients are also eligible for additional assistance through a number of UNRWA programmes, including priority enrolment in vocational training centres across the five fields of operation, preference in shelter rehabilitation, and increased coverage for hospitalization.

Currently, a total of 274 social workers are assigned to administering the SSNP through examining the eligibility of refugees. They conduct on-going home visits to assess poverty levels and eligibility of applicants and are responsible for entering and updating all socio-economic data of SSN families in the SSN database.  Additionally, social workers follow-up on individual cases in the event that assistance is not collected in a timely manner.


UNRWA began mass distributions of rations in 1950, providing a basket of more than ten basic items, including sugar, flour, rice, cheese, fuel and soap. As contributions allowed, clothes, shoes, bedding and domestic items were included. Over time, the number and size of rations decreased, due to funding shortages and a growing realization that not all Palestine refugees needed the same forms of support.

In 1978, the Agency closed the mass distribution of food rations in all fields except Lebanon, where mass distributions ran for two more years.

The Agency’s Special Hardship Assistance Programme (SHAP) was introduced in 1978 to provide assistance to the neediest families and, by the mid-1980s, it was the only programme providing rations to low-income Palestine refugees. SHAP began changing the way it delivered food aid in 1997, offering a quarterly food package combined with a cash subsidy.

In 2011, UNRWA undertook a major reform to change the way families in need are targeted, and the SHAP became the Social Safety Net Programme (SSNP). Instead of determining Palestine refugees’ eligibility for assistance through categorical criteria, the programme employs a poverty-based system based on national poverty lines and the Proxy Means Testing Formula (PMTF).

The PMTF includes a detailed analysis of the underlying causes of poverty, costs of food commodities and socio-economic and protection factors which allows the Agency to identify whether refugees who apply for poverty assistance are abject poor (i.e. food insecure) or absolute poor (i.e. not able to meet the entire basket of basic of needs incl. food). UNRWA establishes the poverty lines using national data and updates these lines according to the Consumer Price Index in each field.

Under the current crisis conditions in Syria, poverty-based targeting through the SSNP cannot be implemented. The previous status-based special hardship caseload is maintained as part of the universal coverage provided through emergency assistance.

Recent Initiatives

In April 2016, UNRWA transitioned from the provision of in-kind food assistance to a cash-based transfer (e-card) approach in Jordan, Lebanon and West Bank. Regarded as a more effective way to extend basic assistance, this new distribution modality provides recipients with greater freedom of choice and access to a wider range of healthy food options while reducing administrative and distribution costs associated with the delivery of in-kind assistance. The shift did not bring any change in the targeting approach for the selection of SSNP recipients or in the eligibility for assistance. Currently, e-card assistance serves a caseload of over 156,000 SSNP beneficiaries across Lebanon (61,709), Jordan (58,899) and the West Bank (36,129).

In Gaza, the provision of in-kind food assistance continues to be the primary means of extending relief to the poor.  In 2016, UNRWA conducted a review of food basket provisions. Following a widely consultative process, the Agency revised basket contents to better respond to health and nutritional values, product availability and logistics practicalities while being mindful of local food habits and public acceptance. The new baskets have decreased the amount of sugar due to its low nutritional value, and in exchange, have added lentils, chickpeas and sardines. Due to the protracted emergency situation, blockade and restrictions imposed on the economy, Gaza was not considered for transitioning to cash-based transfer modalities. UNRWA continues providing food assistance to nearly one million refugees in the Gaza Strip expanding its previous social safety net programme ten-fold compared to pre-blockade times and based on emergency funding.

A recent multi-disciplinary study on the “Social Transfers in Gaza” was conducted in 2018 by an external consultancy firm. The objective of the study was to review current social transfer options, notably the extensive UNRWA food assistance programme with regards to effectiveness and efficiency in achieving programme objectives compared to other transfer modalities (vouchers, cash) and in light of the social, economic and political realities of the Gaza Strip. The study identified a number of contextual factors that may pose significant risks with regards to any transitioning of the UNRWA food operation to cash-based transfer (CBT) schemes related to the state of market (dis)functionalities in Gaza. These include the volatility of market supply chain, taxation on private sector goods, volatile food prices in relation to the UNRWA assistance, reliability of private sector suppliers, food price instability, monopolistic market structure, and reduced local agriculture capacity. The study also identified the shortcomings with regards to the cash economy in Gaza and these mainly include, authorization of cash imports and cash shortages and variations in the value of cash bills.

In Syria, a recent statistically representative survey among Palestine refugees residing in Syria and accessing UNRWA assistance took place at the end of 2021 covering a population of nearly 418,000 persons. The objective of the survey was to collect data that will allow for the establishment of baseline socioeconomic data for all Palestine refugees in Syria. In turn, that data furnished a platform to revisit the Social Hardship Cases Programme’s selection/vulnerability criteria in order to re-define and better address the needs of the Palestine refugees, seven years after the outbreak of the Syrian conflict.

The most observed result of the survey is that nearly three-quarters of the refugee population are poor (under the higher or absolute poverty line) and half are extremely poor (under the lower or abject poverty line). Assistance, nevertheless, plays a vital role in lowering poverty levels; without it, 90.5 per cent of refugees are estimated as being poor, and 79.5 percent extremely poor. According to the survey findings, poverty seems to stem less from the lack of economic activity or employment and rather from high inflation levels and other demographic/social factors such as family size.

During 2017, another milestone study “Evaluation of UNRWA’s transition to the e-card modality in the Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank Fields” was conducted by an external consultancy firm. Overall, the evaluation found that the transition to cash was the correct decision. However, the changes are incomplete and cannot achieve optimal outcomes without additional clarity of programmatic purpose, better casework support and linkages to other services, programme budget adjustment to protect the real value of the transfers, and partnerships to improve learning and efficiency.

For 2019, UNRWA will be adjusting the cash transfer values of the SSNP implemented in Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank according to changes in consumer price indices which is a practice to be applied every two years.