The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is expanding theElectronic Food Voucher project -- the first of its kind in the world touse mobile phone technology -- to provide assistance to refugees livingoutside Damascus.
The pilot phase of the project started in October 2009 with 1,000 Iraqirefugee families in the Syrian capital, and it is now extended outsideDamascus reaching more than 9,600 families or about 32,500 Iraqis. TheElectronic Food Voucher System has proved to be an effective and efficientway to distribute food to refugees living in an urban context, where foodis available on the market but out of economic reach for many refugees.
"WFP's Electronic Voucher System is an innovative and revolutionary way todeliver food assistance to Iraqi refugees in Syria," said Muhannad Hadi,WFP Syria Country Director. "After successful implementation insideDamascus, we are expanding its implementation in other governorates. Wehave 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 theirmobile phones providing a code which enables them to cash in all, or partof the "virtual voucher" at selected government shops. They will be able toexchange their electronic vouchers for a selection of more than 15different food commodities such as rice, lentils, chickpeas, bulgur, whitebeans, oil, canned fish, pasta, sugar, salt, ghee, tomato paste, as well ascheese and eggs – fresh produce that cannot usually be included inconventional aid baskets.
Each family receives one voucher, worth US$30, per person, per two-monthcycle. After each transaction, another SMS informing them of the remainingbalance of their electronic voucher will be sent to their mobiles.
"This system provides families with the freedom to select food of theirown choice, at any selected shop and at any time they wish," said Hadi.
WFP is implementing the Electronic Voucher System in collaboration with theGeneral Establishment for Storing and Marketing Agriculture and AnimalProducts (GESMAAP), a Syrian Ministry of Economy and Trade body. Prior toits implementation, WFP provides training to GESMAAP employees and equipsthe selected GESMAAP shops with the necessary equipment and software.Information sessions for refugees are held at UNHCR distribution centre andfour dedicated hotline numbers are available to respond to refugees'queries. The mobile phone service provider MTN donated SIM cards for theproject, with one year of free SMS service for the refugees.
There are more than 1 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, according togovernment figures. To date, about 130,000 regularly receive food from WFPand non-food assistance from UNHCR. WFP's Emergency Operation 'Assistanceto Iraqi Refugees in Syria' has received only 35 percent of the US$ 32million budget it estimates it needs. Further support is urgently needed toavoid a break in food distribution to vulnerable Iraqi refugees in thecountry.