UN World Food Programme

Mobile Phones Deliver Food to Iraqi Refugees

 Iraqi refugee in Damascus checks her mobile phone food voucher. Copyright: WFP/Selly Muzammil

A pilot project in Damascus has begun distributing WFP food vouchers in the form of mobile phone text messages to Iraqi refugees. It’s believed to be the first such scheme in the world.

Reported by Selly Muzammil

DAMASCUS -- A text message arrives on Haifa’s phone and for this Iraqi refugee in Syria, it’s a rare piece of good news – a message from WFP enabling her to go shopping in a local store.

As part of a ground-breaking pilot project, she is receiving food vouchers electronically over her phone, which she can then spend in selected government-run shops. Instead of travelling to a distribution centre and struggling back with a two-month ration of food, she can now pick and choose to buy what she wants, when she wants.


Check out what NYT blogger Freakonomics said about WFP's 'food aid by text message' initiative.

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“I ran out of savings and became totally dependent on WFP’s in-kind donations,” said Haifa, pictured.* “When I learned about the voucher project, I felt blessed! Now, I can have cheese, rice and canned fish again,” she said.

Cheese and eggs

Refugees can buy items such as cheese and eggs that are difficult to transport and could not normally be included in a conventional aid basket. 

Tariq, another participant in the scheme, said he was happy with the variety and ease of access: “No more long trip to the distribution site, and we can go anytime. I hope this project can be a success and will expand its coverage.”

Every two months, those taking part in the scheme receive a coded message on a special SIM card, entitling them to a voucher worth US$22 per person. They take their phone along to state-run stores where they can cash in all or part of the “virtual voucher.” 

4-month pilot

Around one thousand families are involved in the four-month pilot phase, which will be extended if it is successful. The project has been developed in cooperation with the Syrian government, enabling the refugees to redeem their vouchers in state-run stores in the Jaramana and Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhoods of Damascus. The mobile phone service provider MTN has donated SIM cards for the project. 

Government figures put the number of Iraqis in Syria at 1.2 million, and, of those, around 130, 000 regularly receive food assistance from WFP. Over the last two years, the agency has been texting refugees with the times and locations of food distributions. 

Aid agencies have used phone messages and ATM cards to transfer cash to those in need, but this is believed to be the first time mobiles have been used to deliver food vouchers. Schemes involving vouchers are particularly useful in urban settings where food is available but those in need are unable to afford it.

*Names have been changed in this report