Vouchers Keep Food Moving Despite Syrian Unrest

The coastal town of Lattakia, in Syria, is home to thousands of Iraqi refugees, many of whom receive food aid through WFP’s new Electronic Voucher System (EVS). In recent weeks, Syria has also been home to an escalating wave of civil unrest. And yet, despite all the chaos, the system has continued to work.

by Selly Muzammil

LATTAKIA--A quick primer: the system delivers food assistance in the form of an SMS, or text message. Electronic vouchers with a specific PIN code are sent via mobile phone to be cashed in at selected government shops, letting the user buy fresh, nutritious produce and other food.

The EVS has proven itself to work well in a unique and prolonged refugee situation in an urban setting. After successfully launching in Damascus, WFP and its partners have been working to bring the EVS to different parts of Syria. It reached Lattakia in August of 2010, where about 1,200 of the 115,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria are living.

envelopes of wfp vouchersOpening a New Shop – Over the Phone

When the unrest began, movement was restricted — both by UN security and an intense security deployment by the government. In Lattakia, the only shop providing food for the EVS recipients was looted during the demonstration’s early days, and WFP ICT equipment was stolen. Without the equipment, the EVS system can not run — and that’s exactly what happened. Suddenly, the Iraqi refugees couldn’t buy their food.

The solution was a technological one: a new shop was set up in a more secure location, and the ICT team guided the attendant over the phone to get things working. Using WFP ICT equipment sent via a regular courier service, the shop managed to quickly open for business and food distribution began again.

“At first I was already expecting the worst – we would not be able to receive our food due the security situation and we also heard the shop was closed,” said Ibrahim, an Iraqi residing in Lattakia. “But then, we received an SMS from WFP with the voucher and address of the new shop and Hamdulilla we got our food!” he said.

the inside of a grocery storeWhy Vouchers Break with Tradition

“The EVS has made it much easier for us to continue delivering remotely amid volatile situations without putting our safety at risk,” said Muhannad Hadi, the Syria country director. “The traditional in-kind food distribution system, given the current circumstances, would have placed the well-being of WFP’s staff and beneficiaries at serious risk, or worse, impeded WFP from reaching the beneficiaries. The EVS was able to supply 92 percent of its beneficiaries in Lattakia with food assistance.”

And it wasn’t only Lattakia that was helped by the voucher system. WFP was able to re-adapt in Douma (a suburb of Damascus), Homs and Dara'a. By the end of this distribution cycle, 98 percent of the targeted beneficiaries were helped during a moment of great upheaval and uncertainty.