Phones unfortunately more widespread than food

The WFP has announced a new twist in its successful program using mobile phones to alert Iraqi refugees in Syria about available food aid.  Reuters reports:

Iraqi refugees in Syria will this week start receive U.N. text messages they can redeem for fresh food in local shops, the World Food Programme said on Tuesday. 

The “virtual vouchers” worth $22 per family every two months will supplement traditional aid which rarely includes perishable goods, WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella said, announcing the pilot project supported by the mobile company MTN.

The Syrian pilot will initially reach 1,000 beneficiaries in and around Damascus, and may be extended, the WFP said. Casella described it as a way to help refugees eat a more diversified diet while also supporting local farmers and businesses.

“We are not giving food away, we are actually creating an additional market for local shopkeepers,” she said.

WFP has actually been using mobile technology to connect with Iraq refugees for a couple of years now.  This case study tracks it back to 2007.


FP’s Joshua Keating notes the strangeness of a world in which people don’t have access to food but own mobile phones.  I hear what he’s saying, and the situation may even be more shocking than he knows.  According to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, worldwide at the end of 2008 there were 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions, buoyed by developing countries, where two-thirds of those subscriptions were used.  The WFP’s work in Syria is just one of the many projects taking advantage of the ubiquity of mobile device to affect change in the developing world.  A report last year from the UN Foundation and the Vodafone Group Foundation details a series of case studies that are fascinating.