This is happening. The World Food Program will next week start distributing electronic food vouchers to Syrian refugees in Lebanon — despite the many challenges that remain.
WFP is scaling up its operation, with the number of refugees continuing to grow. There are now about 627,000 registered and 104,000 awaiting registration. Devex learned that the U.N. agency acknowledges an operation on such a large scale won’t be easy at all.
WFP — which is already implementing e-vouchers in Turkey and plans the same transition in Jordan — is nevertheless waiting to see if the system works well enough to determine if a common electronic card can be launched in 2014 for all U.N. agencies to deliver not only food but any other kind of aid.
The question is if and how the electronic voucher system will improve the quality of the food assistance and how this method will impact WFP’s work in Lebanon.
In Lebanon, the 90 percent of WFP aid is delivered through vouchers. Refugees can pick them up in 29 sites across the country and spend them in a network of almost 300 stores. The system, according to the U.N. agency, is working well so far in a country where Syrian refugees are widely dispersed either in host communities or informal settlements.
“If we’d distributed [the] food aid [ourselves], it would have been [much more] challenging because of the logistics,” said Lynn Miller, WFP head of operations in Lebanon. Devex earlier reported that food vouchers had raised concerns regarding black market sales or using them as cash to pay rent.
E-vouchers work pretty much like a debit card that is loaded each month with $27 that can be spent on food in a network of stores that collaborate with the WFP program.
“We are really excited about [e-vouchers] because we really think that this will allow us to redirect our attention and our resources to really look into the quality of the programming,” explained Miller.
The biggest implication for WFP staff and for its partners will be a shift in their focus. The introduction of e-vouchers will mean less time spent in the monthly distribution, collecting vouchers from the shops, cross-referencing what supplies were distributed and wcollected, and paying the retailers.
“[We will] focus [more] on the quality of the programming and on the follow-up with the families [and on] understanding how the program works, what [the] needs are [and] on monitoring the shops to make sure that they comply with the agreement,” said Miller.
The scheme is still in trial mode and sale machines are being tested. WFP expects to get initial feedback from the field by the end of October.
“[It] is a new thing and no one really has the experience of doing [it] on a big scale … we work with partners that had similar programs at various levels [but the challenge is] the large scale,” explained Miller.
Technology is not an issue: One of the strengths of the system is that it uses models of electronic transfers that already exist almost everywhere in the banking system. The challenge is the lack of financial literacy of the refugees and the shopkeeper.
“The issue is that the people have to understand how the technology works in a very short [period] of time,” noted Miller. Educational campaigns and training of the refugees are the typical activities WFP is carrying out with its traditional NGO partners, while training of the shopkeepers is done by banks.
Another major challenge is that people need an entire range of assistance, not only food. The electronic card could offer to other partners and other agencies a single channel for delivering all forms of aid, like for example rental subsidies, fuel subsidies, or cash transfers. WFP is discussing the implementation of the platform with UNHCR and hopes Lebanon can provide a model for a future common system to distribute assistance.
Miller said that WFP is hoping more resources will come their way and will be looking into hiring more staff and engaging into new partnerships, especially if the number of refugees continues to crisis as a result of the Syrian crisis, with no end in sight.
The U.N. agency is about to sign an agreement with an NGO to bring more local and international partners on board with the capacity and expertise to distribute food and vouchers.
WFP is looking for candidates with the specific finance expertise required by the program.
“We need skilled program [officers] … We need more finance and administrative staff to manage … the increased number of resources that we are handling. We always need more [people to] monitor food distribution and do household visits,” said Miller.
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