Ideas & Updates

WFP's new e-card reduces Syrian refugees suffering

As part of its massive humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is rolling out an innovative electronic voucher programme in Lebanon that will allow hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to meet their food needs and help boost the local economy.

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Ali Farhat fled the fighting in Edlib, Northern Syria almost a year ago with his wife and four children. He also takes care of his brother’s family, since his brother disappeared in Syria few months ago. He was among the first Syrians in Lebanon to receive an Electronic Card that allows him to feed his big family. Copyright WFP/Dalia Kamissy

Families will receive a card loaded monthly with US$27 per person, which can be redeemed against a list of items at participating local stores. That allows them to buy the foods that fit their needs, including fresh produce which is not normally included in traditional food rations.

Piloted in September for some 2,000 Syrian households (around 10,000 people) in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, the e-card programme will be gradually expanded to other parts of the country in the coming weeks, replacing WFP’s paper vouchers. By the year’s end, some 800,000 refugees will be using these electronic vouchers – or “e-cards” – at participating shops in Lebanon under an initiative realized with the technical support of WFP’s private sector partner, MasterCard.

“This is a real boon for Syrian refugees who have endured tremendous hardship over many months,” said Muhannad Hadi, WFP’s Emergency coordinator for the Syrian crisis. “The e-cards also bring business to local merchants, and they make WFP’s operations more time and cost effective. This is a win for all of us.”

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The system also helps boost the local economy. Since the beginning of 2013, the voucher system injected over US$82 million into the local economy of Lebanon.

“By supporting WFP, we have developed a solution which combines our experience in payments and technology with WFP’s insight into the most pressing needs facing refugees,” said MasterCard’s Levant Market Manager, Basel El Tell. “It is very encouraging to see how the e-cards can positively impact the refugees as the initiative scales up across the region.”

In addition to the obvious benefits provided by the e-cards, they also have a number of other advantages not immediately apparent which make them attractive to WFP and other aid organizations. They can increase women’s control within households in coordinating and meeting food needs, as they can be fully involved in the selection of food for their families.

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Unlike with paper vouchers, with the E-cards refugees are not obliged to spend the full amount at once, which means they can use it to buy their need of fresh vegetables and fruits when needed. Copyright WFP/Dalia Khamissy

Moreover, e-cards can also increase the safety of distribution recipients by allowing them to maintain a low profile – not only are they recharged automatically monthly through the partner bank negating the need for beneficiaries to come to distribution sites, but card holders can also shop along with the rest of the population at markets and shopping areas and avoid easily identifiable, large-scale in-kind food distributions. WFP has delayed or cancelled voucher distributions as a result of security concerns in Lebanon and Egypt. E-cards allow WFP to provide food assistance on a regular basis while ensuring the safety of recipients, as well as that of WFP and partner staff. Another benefit is that, unlike in-kind food assistance or paper vouchers, the e-cards require a personal identification number (PIN) to access assistance and can be canceled if the card is lost or stolen, hence lowering costs incurred as a result of losses.

Besides Lebanon, WFP will be introducing a similar e-card programme for Syrian refugees in Jordan, again with MasterCard’s support, in a phased rollout for an initial 300,000 refugees by the end of 2013 that will continue into 2014. Meanwhile a similar programme in Turkey, outside the MasterCard partnership, transfers more than US$4 million a month to the “e-food cards” of around 115,000 Syrian refugees.

The e-cards reflect WFP’s broader shift away from physical food deliveries to e-vouchers and other cutting-edge forms of assistance that can be more effective and have a larger impact. So far in 2013, through voucher programmes for Syrian refugees, WFP has injected roughly US$ 192 million into the local economies of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

The Syria response is WFP’s largest and most complex emergency operation. WFP needs US$30 million each week to meet the needs of people affected by the conflict.

WFP’s operations in Lebanon are being supported by Australia, Canada, Denmark, the European Commission, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Norway, UK and the US, among others.