WFP expands phone-based food voucher scheme for Iraqi refugees in Syria

WFP expands phone-based food voucher scheme for Iraqi refugees in Syria
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Published September 22nd, 2010 - 14:59 GMT

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The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is expanding the
Electronic Food Voucher project -- the first of its kind in the world to
use mobile phone technology -- to provide assistance to refugees living
outside Damascus.

The pilot phase of the project started in October 2009 with 1,000 Iraqi
refugee families in the Syrian capital, and it is now extended outside
Damascus reaching more than 9,600 families or about 32,500 Iraqis. The
Electronic Food Voucher System has proved to be an effective and efficient
way to distribute food to refugees living in an urban context, where food
is available on the market but out of economic reach for many refugees.

"WFP's Electronic Voucher System is an innovative and revolutionary way to
deliver food assistance to Iraqi refugees in Syria," said Muhannad Hadi,
WFP Syria Country Director. "After successful implementation inside
Damascus, we are expanding its implementation in other governorates. We
have already reached 100 percent of the refugees living in Homs, Lattakia,
and Tartous and by the end of October we are planning to expand in Edlib,
Hama and Daraa."

Under this initiative, Iraqi refugees receive a text message on their
mobile phones providing a code which enables 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 a selection of more than 15
different food commodities such as rice, lentils, chickpeas, bulgur, white
beans, oil, canned fish, pasta, sugar, salt, ghee, tomato paste, as well as
cheese and eggs – fresh produce that cannot usually be included in
conventional aid baskets.

Each family receives one voucher, worth US$30, per person, per two-month
cycle. After each transaction, another SMS informing them of the remaining
balance of their electronic voucher will be sent to their mobiles.

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

WFP is implementing the Electronic Voucher System in collaboration with the
General Establishment for Storing and Marketing Agriculture and Animal
Products (GESMAAP), a Syrian Ministry of Economy and Trade body. Prior to
its implementation, WFP provides training to GESMAAP employees and equips
the selected GESMAAP shops with the necessary equipment and software.
Information sessions for refugees are held at UNHCR distribution centre and
four dedicated hotline numbers are available to respond to refugees'
queries. The mobile phone service provider MTN donated SIM cards for the
project, with one year of free SMS service for the refugees.

There are more than 1 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, according to
government figures. To date, about 130,000 regularly receive food from WFP
and non-food assistance from UNHCR. WFP's Emergency Operation 'Assistance
to Iraqi Refugees in Syria' has received only 35 percent of the US$ 32
million budget it estimates it needs. Further support is urgently needed to
avoid a break in food distribution to vulnerable Iraqi refugees in the
country. 

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