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World Food Program Launches First Electronic Food Voucher Program

World Food Program Launches First Electronic Food Voucher Program
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The World Food Program has launched the world's first electronic food voucher project. WFP says it will use mobile phone technology to aid 1,000 Iraqi refugee families in Syria fill up their food basket.

The so-called virtual voucher project gives new meaning to the concept of food aid. SIM cards in mobile telephones will be the manner of food distribution.

World Food Program spokeswoman, Emilia Cassela, says the beneficiaries of this pilot project will receive $22 worth of vouchers every two months. She says they will receive a text message on their mobile phones, providing them with a code.

This code, she says, will enable them to go to selected government shops and redeem that money for food items. This includes food that they cannot get in normal distributions. "The advantage of this very much - and we have done this in other locations with paper food vouchers - is that it permits, as I say, people to buy food also when they need it as opposed to having to queue in long lines and go to distribution centers. They can go to the shops when they actually need the food and collect it at that time. And, it also is better for the economies of the communities in which we are able to use food vouchers because, in essence, we are not giving food away, but we are actually providing additional markets to the local shopkeepers," she said.

The World Food Program currently provides food assistance to 130,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria. Cassela says the refugees have been there since 2006 and, interestingly, all of them have mobile phones. "We are currently providing news about distributions on mobile phone messages to the 130,000 caseload right now. And, so what we are doing is doing a pilot to actually give the vouchers via mobile phones using SIM cards donated by the local mobile phone provider… But, I want to stress, this is not a SIM card that they are to use to make phone calls… What this is, is a SIM card specifically with credit for buying food, not for making phone calls," she said.

Cassela says this virtual voucher project is expected to run for four months. She says it may be extended depending on the outcome of the pilot. She says the families who are participating in this program, received information and training sessions on how to use the electronic voucher scheme.