The United Nations World Food Programme this week announced a pilot project in which Iraqi refugee families in Syria will receive food vouchers via text message.
About 1,000 families in Damascus will receive one voucher worth about $22 per family member every two months. The virtual vouchers will be codes they can use to purchase rice, wheat, lentils, cheese, eggs and other items not distributed 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," Daly Belgasmi, the WFP's Regional Director for the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, said in a statement.
More than 1.2 million Iraqi refugees are living in Syria, according to government figures. Of those, 130,000 (all of whom have mobile phones, WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella told Agence France-Presse) regularly receive food aid and other assistance from the WFP and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, so this pilot program is but a drop in the bucket. However, if it works, it could be a huge boon to refugees all over the world.
Special SIM cards were donated by mobile phone service provider MTN for
the four-month pilot, which could be extended if successful.
Syria’s Ministry of Economy and Trade will provide the food items through its stores in the Jaramana and Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhoods in Damascus, where most Iraqi refugees live.The wider ramifications of such a program are that people who are scattered to outlying areas, away from most refugees and far from places where aid is generally distributed, could have a much easier time getting aid in the future.
"People will no longer need to queue at food distribution points or travel long distances to distribution centres," WFP Syria Country Director Muhannad Hadi said in a statement. "They will also be able to have a more diversified diet, based on their own personal choices and preferences."