DAMASCUS – The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has launched an electronic food voucher pilot project -- the first of its kind in the world to use mobile phone technology -- to aid 1,000 Iraqi refugee families in Syria.
Iraqi refugees living in Damascus will receive a text message on their mobiles providing a code enabling them to cash in all or part of the “virtual voucher” at selected government shops. They will be able to exchange their electronic vouchers for rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil and canned fish, as well as cheese and eggs -- items that cannot usually be included in conventional aid baskets.
“This pilot project will allow WFP to meet the needs of refugees living in a city where food is available but they are unable to afford it," said Daly Belgasmi, WFP’s Regional Director for the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. "WFP is always looking for innovative and appropriate ways to deliver help to the needy.”
Each family will receive one voucher per person, worth US$22 every two months. After each transaction, families will receive an updated balance, also sent by SMS to their mobile numbers.
“People will no longer need to queue at food distribution points or travel long distances to distribution centres,” said WFP Syria Country Director Muhannad Hadi. “They will also be able to have a more diversified diet, based on their own personal choices and preferences.”
While aid agencies have used phone messages and smart cards to transfer cash to those in need, this is believed to be the first time mobiles have been used to deliver food vouchers.
WFP developed the project in collaboration with the General Establishment for Storing and Marketing Agriculture and Animal Products (GESMAAP), a Syrian Ministry of Economy and Trade body. GESMAAP will provide food items through their stores in the Jaramana and Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhoods in Damascus, where the majority of Iraqi refugees live.
The mobile phone service provider MTN donated SIM cards for the project, which is expected to run for four months, but may be extended depending on the outcome of the pilot. Participating families received information and training sessions on how to use the electronic voucher programme.
There are more than 1.2 million displaced Iraqis in Syria, according to government figures. To date, about 130,000 regularly receive food assistance from WFP with complementary food and non-food assistance from UNHCR.