Phones But No Food

We’ve blogged before about the growing role of mobile phones in economic development; now the phones will be used to deliver food aid as well. The World Food Program (WFP) recently announced that it will begin texting food vouchers to 1,000 Iraqi refugee families in Syria. The vouchers can be exchanged for rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil, canned fish, cheese, and eggs at certain stores. Emilia Casella, the WFP spokesperson, told reporters that all of the 130,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria receiving food aid already have mobile phones: “We’re currently providing news about distributions on mobile phone messages to the 130,000 caseload right now.” (HT: F.P. Passport)[%comments]

Terry Pratt

So if someone texts me a food voucher, how exactly do I redeem it? How would I even verify it's genuine?

Kevin H

I thought the same thing Terry. My guess is a unique confirmation code for each voucher. The hard part would be if multiple copies of the voucher were redeemed at multiple stores within a short amount of time. However, because each code would be unique, you would have a pretty good idea of who was involved in the scam, even if you couldn't prevent the scam from happening.


Kevin H

Ha, I should actually read the article first shouldn't I: "United Nations agency will send a 22-dollar (15-euro) voucher every two months by SMS to each family, who will be provided with a special SIM card." So now the code idea still works, but it is stored on the SIM card, and probably encrypted.


how can they all afford cell phones but not rice and flour?


Most food stores in Syria aren't equipped with the technology to deal with these kinds of vouchers, much less catch scams. It will be interesting to see how the program works out.


Mobile phones cost much less over there (or in most places). And there aren't any contracts--pay as you go with. And SIM cards are interchangeable for almost all the phones (No Sprint!). And I know, for example, in Bangladesh probably the most well-developed infrastructure in the country is cellular telephones.

A lot of places also have (or are starting to implement) mobile banking systems since villagers won't have a bank account or access to a physical bank.

I think these vouchers are perfect, but we'll see how the execution of encrypted SIM cards/identification codes works.

Eric M. Jones

It will be amusing if the solutions for all the world's problems occur as IPhone apps.

David Smart

Got famine? There's an app for that!

Robin Lodge

As the regional spokesperson for the World Food Programme in Iraq and Syria, I would like to clarify a couple of points. Firstly, the vast majority of the Iraqi refugees in Syria come from an urban background; they are not living in camps, but in apartments in Damascus and other cities. They left Iraq with their life savings, so it is perfectly natural that they have mobile phones. Their problem is that they have no incomes and their savings have dwindled and largely disappeared, hence the need for food assistance. The SIM cards are provided as an in-kind donation to WFP from the service provider and are given only to families registered with UNHCR. They cannot be exchanged, as they are coded to match an individual identity. Thus, the risk of fraud is minimised. The great advantage of the system is that it gives the families flexibility on the type of food and quantity that they purchase at any given time and reduces the burden for WFP in organising monthly or two-monthly distributions. The vouchers can only be used in specific food stores that have the technology to apply the system and can only be used to redeem specific food items, not for example tobacco or alcohol.


Sameera Wijerathna


Mobile phones are becoming affordable and applicable day by day. One had argued "why we assumed poor refugees have mobile when they do not have food"

But as per Robin the selected group of refugees is not like the other refugees in developing countries.

So, let's see what the outcome of this initiative is without coming to early conclusions.



It is also entirely possible (likely?) that the families involved could be sharing mobile phones within the community. If the UNHCR is supplying the SIM cards, all a family has to do is swap the SIM card into a shared phone, get the voucher number, then swap it out for the next family's SIM.

Though I agree that the ready availability of mobile phones in the 'developing world' makes it possible that each family could also conceivably own their own phone without needing to share.