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WFP rolls out SMS food vouchers for refugees

Iraqi refugees use a WFP food voucher on their mobile phone to purchase food from a shop in Damascus
Iraqi refugees use a WFP food voucher on their mobile phone to purchase food from a shop in Damascus (Selly Muzammil/WFP)

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Syria is rolling out an electronic food voucher scheme for Iraqis after a successful pilot phase.

The initiative, which WFP Syria says is the first of its kind using mobile phone technology, will reach 9,600 families, comprising around 32,500 refugees, across Syria.

“After successful implementation in Damascus, we are expanding its implementation to other governorates,” said Muhannad Hadi, WFP Syria's country director, in a statement.

WFP has already rolled out the scheme to Homs, Latakia and Tartous governorates and it will be extended to Hama, Idleb and Daraa governorates next month.

Syria hosts over one million Iraqi refugees, according to Syrian government estimates, more than any other country. Around 130,000 receive regular food assistance from WFP.

Iraqi families eligible for e-voucher food assistance are given a SIM card and receive a text message with a code during each two-month food distribution cycle. The voucher can be redeemed in selected government shops. After each transaction an updated balance is sent by SMS.

WFP took the decision to roll out the scheme following a pilot with 1,000 families which started in October 2009

“There were no significant problems so we are gradually increasing the scheme's reach,” said Selly Muzammil, a WFP spokesperson in Syria.

The system being rolled out has made improvements on the pilot scheme. The voucher value is now US$30 - in line with the value of the foodstuffs given out in traditional handouts - and the number of items redeemable has been increased from fewer than 10 during the pilot to 17. These include rice, lentils, canned fish and some fresh products including cheese and eggs. Non-food items are distributed by the UN Refugee Agency using the traditional hand-out method.

Advantages of the scheme include giving the families increased control over their meals. Some refugees told IRIN in January 2009 that they were selling some of the food handouts in order to buy fresh foods.

“This system provides families with more freedom to select food of their own choice, at any selected shop and at any time they wish,” said Hadi.

WFP said the e-vouchers are also an “effective and efficient” way to reach the refugees who are spread out in the urban centres. The urban setting has challenged aid agencies to find innovative ways to reach them. There are currently 10 shops in Damascus and its suburbs where refugees can use their vouchers.

Drawbacks, threats

But the limited number of shops and items is cited by Iraqi refugees as a drawback to the scheme. Others say they would prefer cash assistance to spend on rent or medical expenses.

“If the aim is to help people in whatever arena they most need help - food, shelter, health care - food vouchers are commonly less effective than cash,” Chris Barrett, a food aid expert at Cornell University in the USA, told IRIN.

“But studies from many programmes indicate that vouchers do spark more food consumption than a transfer of an equivalent amount of cash. So if the goal is to induce increased nutrient intake, vouchers commonly do at least as good a job of meeting that goal,” he said.

WFP says the main threat to the scheme is a lack of funding. Only 35 percent of the $32 million budget for the programme to assist Iraqi refugees has been met. The agency says further support is urgently needed to avoid a break in food distributions.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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