The humanitarian system for many years has been accused of being inefficient and in some cases corrupt — another reason that efficiency of cash is being embraced.
A four-country study comparing cash transfers and food aid found that 18 percent more people could be helped for the same amount of money. And in one study in Somalia, researchers found that only 35 percent of a food aid budget went to beneficiaries, compared to a cash program, where 85 percent of aid went to beneficiaries.
Cash, like e-money, can be even better than food vouchers, said a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps.
"Vouchers generally restrict purchases to food, and we found a bias toward purchasing sugar, tea and halawa (a local sweet product)," she said by email. "That's because people didn't have money to buy fuel for cooking, so they opted for items that provide high energy with minimal cooking time."
Cash is rapidly spreading in the humanitarian system. Mercy Corps said it will give 25 percent of its aid in cash by 2018, and IRC plans to do the same by 2020. Only about 6 percent of the world's humanitarian aid currently comes in the form of cash, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development.
In Syria it's likely that much more help will be needed immediately. Refugees fleeing to Idlib have found what most people believe are only temporary havens. Many other cities in Syria are held by rebels or other factions in the civil war, and they are likely to come under further attack, said aid agencies.
— By Elizabeth MacBride, special to CNBC.com
This story is part of NBCU's Share Kindness. Follow the series on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. #ShareKindness