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WFP To Launch 4-Month Food Voucher Text Message Pilot Program For Iraqi Refugees

The World Food Programme (WFP) Tuesday announced that it is launching a pilot program to send food vouchers via mobile phone text messages to Iraqi refugees in Syria, Agence France-Presse reports (10/27). This program is “the first of its kind in the world to use mobile phone technology,” according to a WPF press release (10/27).

“For two years, WFP has been using texts to communicate details of food-distribution times and locations to the 130,000 Syria-based Iraqi refugees on its distribution lists,” the Wall Street Journal’s “Digits” blog reports. “Now, using SIM cards … a random sample of 1,000 refugees living in Damascus will receive a code via SMS, enabling them to cash in all or part of the ‘virtual voucher’ … at selected government shops” (Vinograd, 10/27). 

Each family will receive a $22 voucher every two months to supplement traditional aid, which often does not include perishable goods, said WFP spokesperson Emilia Casella, according to Reuters. “They will be able to exchange their electronic vouchers for rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil and canned fish, as well as cheese and eggs — items that cannot usually be included in conventional aid baskets,” she said (MacInnis, 10/27).

People will no longer need to queue at food distribution points or travel long distances to distribution centres,” said WFP Syria Country Director Muhannad Hadi, according to the U.N. News Centre. “They will also be able to have a more diversified diet, based on their own personal choices and preferences.” The news center writes that “mobile phone service provider MTN donated SIM cards for the project, which is set to run for four months but could be extended depending on the success of the pilot programme” (10/27).

The potential for fraud is “raising flags in the tech community,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s “Digits” blog. “What will happen if people get a hold of more than one SIM card and claim extra aid? In an interview, Abeer Etefa, WFP’s regional public-information officer for the Middle East, said measures are already in place to prevent the misuse of the SIM cards. She stressed that this is a pilot program, in which the agency is attempting to discover whether the system is vulnerable to abuse” (10/27).