CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va – Your smart phone can change the world. In fact, some smart phones have already started. World Food Program’s e-vouchers made Mashable.com’s list of “Innovations that Improved the World in 2013.” How do they work? E-vouchers are the debit cards of donations. They provide redeemable money, transferred through cell phones, allowing a donation from San Francisco to arrive in Lebanon almost instantaneously. E-vouchers provide immediate, accessible aid.
This invention allows numerous benefits, the first of which is convenience. Rather than wasting donated money on shipping costs and losing valuable time to reach those in need, e-vouchers give recipients immediate access to what they need. Money sent through e-vouchers acts like debit, and recipients can redeem it for use at local groceries.
Not only does this allow immediate aid, it also provides stimulation to the local economy. Beneficiaries use e-vouchers at local establishments, putting real money into the economy. Shipping food is not only costly; it can also be unnecessary if the problem is not a lack of local resources but merely inability to afford these resources. E-vouchers thus offer a mutually beneficial solution both to the poor and their communities by creating new consumers. In Lebanon alone, e-vouchers provided $82 million to local economies in 2013.
Additionally, e-vouchers empower recipients by giving them the opportunity to purchase food for themselves. They can choose their purchases with dignity and autonomy. Unlike limited rations that specify exactly what foods recipients can redeem, e-vouchers give these refugees the option to shop for themselves. They can choose fresh produce, decide how much they need for their family and simply experience the comforting normality of grocery shopping for themselves in the midst of turmoil.
Similar programs have used cash to offer this kind of aid, but e-vouchers offer a slightly more controlled version of this. Cash offers the same ease, benefits to the community and dignity to the new consumer, but it also allows opportunities for corruption. Unlike simply giving cash, e-vouchers ensure transparency. They track purchases, ensuring the money arrives to the intended recipients and that those recipients use it on necessary food items.
How have e-vouchers worked so far? In their first two years in action, e-vouchers provided aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. During 2011, the World Food Program (WFP) launched between 30 and 40 e-voucher programs, and this number will continue to grow. Do not expect e-vouchers to completely replace traditional food aid, though. The voucher program is still small compared to broader WFP aid. According to WFP’s Cash for Change head, Annalisa Conte, e-vouchers are efficient for specific situations. Syrian refugees are ideal candidates, for they suffer not from a lack of available food but instead merely lack of currency to purchase what they need. This kind of situation is ideal for e-vouchers; WFP intends the program to benefit those who “do not have sufficient purchasing power.” For millions of such people, e-vouchers have offered a solution.
They do not eliminate the need for aid in the form of physical resources in other circumstances, though. Conte describes situations with insufficient resources to provide for the community, in which cases traditional aid is necessary.
Conte also explains that for e-vouchers to work, WFP must research and thoroughly understand the target market for the program. E-vouchers run the risk of creating inflation. There must be adequate supply for the demand e-vouchers create, and the appropriate resources must be available. For example, WFP has shown a recent focus on maternal and child health. Thus, a community must offer necessary resources for breast-feeding mothers and young children for e-vouchers to be effective.
In appropriate markets, e-vouchers are efficient and effective. They benefit individual recipients as well as the broader community, all while streamlining the process of offering aid and granting independence to beneficiaries. Alone, e-vouchers will not solve poverty, but they are a valuable step in the right direction.
– Zoey Dorman
Sources: World Food Program 1, World Food Program 2, World Food Program 3, Mashable,