To some 1,000 Iraqi families living in Syrian refugee camps, food is now just a text message away.
That's according to the World Food Program, which did not elaborate on whether cell phones would be donated or how Iraqi refugees would be selected.
The agency did say that the families would benefit from a pilot project that will enable them to receive electronic food vouchers through their mobile phones.
Each family member would receive one voucher worth USD22 every two months. This can be exchanged for food items at selected government stores in Damascus. Families would also receive text messages containing updated balance reports after each transaction. The project would run for four months, with an option to extend depending on its success.
"This pilot project will allow WFP to meet the needs of refugees living in a city where food is available but they are unable to afford it," said Daly Belgasmi, who leads the agency's operations in the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
The electronic food voucher project also removes the need for refugees to travel to and line up at food distribution centers. Furthermore, recipients of the vouchers can choose the composition of their diets as well as buy cheese, eggs and other food items that are not usually included in conventional food relief packages.
The project is supported by the General Establishment for Storing and Marketing Agriculture and Animal Products, which is part of Syria's Ministry of Economy and Trade. GESMAAP will provide food in stores in Damascus' Sayeda Zeinab and Jaramana communities, where refugees can exchange their vouchers. Meanwhile, service provider MTN has donated the subscriber identity module or SIM cards to be used for the project. WFP will also conduct training and information sessions for the participating families.
Belgasmi noted that this pilot project is in line with WFP's effort to seek innovative ways of reaching the world's poor and needy. Nancy Roman, WFP's director of communications and public policy strategy, also mentioned in an interview with Devex a few months ago that the agency is considering partnerships with the telecommunication industry to improve its operation and efforts to prevent future famine situations.
This project is believed to be the first of its kind, using mobile phones to provide vouchers to those in need of food assistance. However, it is not the first project to recognize the potential of the technology in improving development programs.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has previously launched an open competition for development-focused information technology. Dubbed Development 2.0, the contest awarded cash prizes to the best mobile technology projects focused on different development areas.
As more and more people in the developing world gain access to mobile phone technology, it may be best for the development community to follow the lead of WFP or consider implementing projects such as those featured in Development 2.0 if they are to reach more people in a more efficient manner.