SEATTLE — In 2012, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) launched food e-card programs in several countries neighboring Syria — Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq — to provide help for Syrian refugees. The cards, which look just like debit cards and can be used similarly, are charged with a set amount of money per month determined by family size.
The food e-cards have several advantages over traditional in-kind food aid. Traditional food rations leave little room for choice and are limited to durable staples like grains and cooking oil. In contrast, with the e-cards, aid recipients can add fresh produce, meat or dairy to their family’s diet. E-cards give recipients access to more foods, which enables them to have a more diverse diet and regain some agency that is lost as refugees.
The e-cards also help aid providers save time and money since there is no need to ship or store food. After the refugees have been registered and receive their e-card, money is transferred electronically to them every month. But locating all the indigent Syrian refugees poses a challenge to the WFP. Ninety percent of the Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon live outside of refugee camps, which complicates the distribution of food aid. In Turkish cities close to the Syrian border, aid workers go door to door to find and register Syrian families eligible for the program.
The cards give the WFP the ability to set limits on what the cards can be used for. In Turkey, aid recipients have the most freedom: They can withdraw their money at an ATM and use it as cash at street vendors and any store. In Lebanon and Jordan, the e-cards can only be used at certain stores and solely to buy food. The restrictions are aimed at preventing landlords from raising rents to collect the refugee’s additional cash and to reassure donors that the money is well-used.
Local businesses also benefit from the WFP e-card programs. In 2014, the WFP estimated that its e-card program in Jordan “will create more than 350 jobs [and]generate roughly $6 million in tax revenue.” The Economist found that in Lebanon, the shops contracted by the e-card program doubled their revenue.
The increase in revenue and knowledge that money on the cards can only be spent at a few locations has led some contracted businesses to exploit their position by raising prices. WFP has reacted to this by contracting more shops to increase competition and drive down prices. It also sends price-checkers to stores regularly to ensure fair pricing.
In 2016, WFP launched its latest e-card program in Iraq to extend help for Syrian refugees. Iraqi families displaced by the war are also eligible for the program. As of April 2016, 12.000 cards had been distributed in Iraq. With this assistance, WFP is able to help to provide refugees with the necessary nutrition for survival and return a bit of normality and control to their lives.
– Lena Riebl