Interview: UN World Food Programme feeds thousands of Iraqi refugees with pioneering mobile voucher scheme
The United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) plans to use mobile-phone vouchers to deliver food aid to 40,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria by the end of 2010. mobiThinking gets the low down from the WFP on the scheme that’s revolutionizing the way aid is delivered.
In October 2009, the WFP kicked off the world’s first food-aid program to use m-vouchers. One thousand Iraqi refugee families in Damascus took part in the trial. They received a voucher by SMS every two months that could be cashed in at Syrian state shops for food, including rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil, canned fish, cheese and eggs – fresh food can’t usually be included in conventional aid baskets. Now the scheme is being rolled out to refugees outside the Syrian capital, covering 9,600 families.
Interview: Selly Muzammil, World Food Programme, Syria
1) How do Iraqi refugees in Syria find out about the vouchers and sign up?
WFP Syria holds information sessions on regular basis to provide the refugees with the information on how the electronic voucher system (EVS) works.
Currently, the program reaches refugees in Damascus categorized as the most vulnerable (with the number increasing every cycle). Under the current expansion, 100 percent of targeted refugees in governorates (regions) of Homs, Tartous, Lattakia, Hama, Idleb and Daraa will now be covered by the scheme.
2) How does the scheme work? How do the refugees receive and cash in their vouchers?
The system works with any mobile phone as the voucher is delivered by SMS.
The system uses the following steps:
• Each participating family has the option to receive the special SIM card that is used by the WFP program, free of charge from mobile phone operator MTN.
• Each family needs a printed verification code issued by UNHCR at the beginning of every distribution cycle.
• The WFP sends the beneficiaries a voucher code number (PIN) and the amount they are entitled too via SMS.
• Beneficiaries go to any of the selected GESMAAP stores to make their purchases using the electronic voucher.
• Beneficiaries need to show their voucher code number (PIN) along with the verification code issued by UNHCR to the shop attendant.
• There are 17 different types of food stuff that can be purchased.
• When each purchase is complete, the beneficiaries need to sign two copies of an invoice to say have received the food.
• After each transaction is completed, a new voucher code number (PIN) and an updated entitlement is sent by SMS.
3) What equipment do the shops require to cash in the vouchers?
The stores are equipped with ICT equipment including PC, barcode reader to read the verification code and a printer to print the invoices.
4) Who designed and runs the system?
The system was 100 percent designed in house. WFP contracted a local software developer, for technical support.
5) How difficult and how expensive was it to set up? Will it be cheaper/easier to replicate this elsewhere?
The set-up involved lots of field study, surveys and, most importantly, innovative thinking.
WFP took into consideration the lifestyle and the urban context of these refugees who live in scattered areas (which makes them difficult to reach – this is a big challenge) and at the same time capitalizing on technology and on the fact that almost 100 percent of these refugees own mobile phones.
The system is considerably friendly, straightforward and can be easily replicated elsewhere.
6) How many people currently receive aid this way? How many more people will receive it under the current expansion plan? What is the total value of aid delivered this way to date?
Under current expansion plans, by end of October, WFP expects to reach 32,500 beneficiaries across Syria through the electronic voucher system, and 40,000 by end of 2010.
7) What proportion of aid delivered to the Iraqi refugees in the areas covered by the scheme is delivered via mobile?
By end of October 2010: approximately 25 percent in Damascus and 100 percent in Homs, Tartous, Lattakia, Hama, Idleb and Daraa.
8) Is mobile the best way to deliver this sort of aid?
As previously explained in the answer to Q5, considering the unique case of refugees living in urban context and living in scattered areas, as well as the fact that almost 100 percent of the refugees own mobile phones, it is the easiest, fastest, efficient and most effective way to reach them and to deliver our food assistance to these refugees.
9) How do you prevent fraud?
The software applies double verification system. Refugees need to present both the verification code – the barcode is scanned in - and present the PIN code which was sent to their mobile phones – this is typed in manually. Only if the verification and PIN code match are the beneficiaries able to proceed with the purchase.
Moreover, the PIN code can only be used once. After every successful transaction, the software will automatically send out a new PIN code to the refugees’ mobiles, as an SMS message.
10) Do you plan to expand this type of aid via mobile vouchers elsewhere, for example to deliver aid in Pakistan?
WFP is currently looking into its compatibility and replication in other operations.
Find out more about the WFP’s work in Syria here. The WFP welcomes mobiThinking’s readers’ comments on/assistance with the m-voucher program. If you can help, please contact the WFP at: selly.muzammil(at)wfp.org.
Comment below or email editor (at) mobiThinking.com.
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