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For Syrian Refugees, the World Food Program Makes Food Aid Electronic

BY Rebecca Chao | Thursday, July 17 2014

Mohamad Atallah El-Mahmoud, who fled Syria with his family in 2012, sits with his youngest daughter in Lebanon. (Credit: WFP)

In 2012 Mohamad Atallah El-Mahmoud, then 47, and an employee at the Syrian Ministry of Energy, abandoned his home in Al Qusayr, 30 kilometers from the country’s third largest city of Homs, taking with him only some clothing, his savings and identification papers. Then he and his wife, along with their four children, the youngest only seven at the time, fled for Lebanon.

In early February 2012, Syrian government forces began to attack Homs to break down the Syrian rebels’ stronghold. By the time the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in April, 9,000 were estimated to have been killed. The number of those fleeing Syria was 45,000 at the time and would reach half a million by the end of the year.

El-Mahmoud and his family were among the early refugees who fled to Lebanon where nearly two years later, by the latest count, around 1 million Syrians have relocated. Another 1.8 million have sought refuge in surrounding countries like Jordan and Turkey. Shortly after El-Mahmoud and his family arrived in Lebanon, they learned that their home had been destroyed. In the space of a few days, the El-Mahmouds went from being a Syrian middle-class family to one struggling to adapt in a Syrian refugee camp, their days marked by when their food parcels would arrive from the United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP).

“Beans, rice, sugar, oil, cans, etcetera,” El-Mahmoud recounted to WFP public information officer Sandy Maroun who interviewed El-Mahmoud in Lebanon on behalf of techPresident and translated the responses from Arabic into English. He and his family now live in a rented garage in the town of Al Omaar in Bekaa Valley, just over 60 kilometers inland from Beirut. The parcel was the only food they would receive until the next one arrived a month later and they were often obligated to consume perishable items immediately. They eventually moved on to receiving food vouchers of US$30 at a time, which could be used at WFP distribution centers, but again, they received their food in monthly installments and had to also queue in long outdoor lines. Then there was the stigma of receiving food aid, a dependence that added another layer to the seemingly Sisyphean task of adapting from a middle-class Syrian life to one of near poverty in a foreign country.

"There is this whole side of dignity and normality," Laure Chadraoui, a WFP communications officer, told techPresident. "Paper voucher needs to be redeemed all at once; many people live in tents and have no fridges and they need to buy fresh food every day."

Seeking to alleviate this burden, the WFP partnered with MasterCard to create an e-food assistance program, supplying refugees with debit cards that recharge every month. The cards can be used at local supermarkets, rather than food distribution centers, and give refuges autonomy over what they eat and when they purchase food.

“May God give you health for helping us,” El-Mahmoud told Maroun. “The electronic card makes us feel better than the boxes of food. It allows us to choose the food that we want. It is more convenient.”

Now he and his family shop at the Al-Assaad supermarket, just a short walk from their home (most refugees live in rented apartments and only 15 percent live in tented settlements), and once a month they are able to roast a chicken with potatoes, and cook more traditional dishes with items like kidney beans and cowpeas. Yet while El-Mahmoud expresses gratitude for what assistance he and his family have received, there is also the recognition of how far down they have fallen on the socio-economic ladder.

“We are not always able, economically, to afford all the food we used to have in Syria. There, we used to lead a better life,” said El-Mahmoud. His son, Soheib, 17, has found temporary work, which goes towards paying the rent and buying “clothes for the girls.” Still, work comes in only around 10 days a month. The family has run out of their savings and El-Mahmoud himself has been unable to find work in this small town where rent might be cheaper but where there are fewer job opportunities.

“We are striving to adapt,” said El-Mahmoud. “It’s not the life we are used to. It is not the ambiance we are used to living in.” What he means by “ambience” is simply access to education and healthcare, none of which his children have. He has not been able to place his two eldest daughters, Hadeel, 15, and Amama, 13, in school, but his youngest, Yamama, 9, attends the public school in Omeira. Nearly half of school-aged refugees are unable to attend school because there is no available space at public ones and refugees do not have the financial resources to enroll in private schools.

Space and resources are a recurring problem in Lebanon, not just for school children. One in four of those living in Lebanon are now refugees. The sudden population growth has taxed the Lebanese infrastructure and economy, burdening the government with supplying additional water and electricity and adding competition to a lackluster job market. Lebanon has a high youth unemployment rate of 34 percent.

On top of that, “people came from north and east of Lebanon, areas that were already underdeveloped,” said Chadraouit. “[These regions] bore the economic brunt of receiving all these refugees.” The electronic food program attempts to ease the burden of the host country by injecting all the aid money back into the local economy. Around 300 small and mid-sized shops participate in the e-food program; and since the WFP began distributing debit cards to refugees in July 2012, it has contributed over $400 million to Lebanon and neighboring countries where it operates.

The WFP currently assists 715,000 refugees in Lebanon, covered by 150,000 cards. By the end of the year, the WFP hopes to reach all 1 million refugees in the country.

In Jordan, the WFP has assisted around 650,000 refugees. There is a similar e-food program in Turkey but there, the WFP partnered with Visa rather than Mastercard for help with the technical infrastructure of the debit card system.

Syrian refugees in Iraq and Egypt currently use paper vouchers but the WFP will soon be switching to an electronic system. “Even for the World Food Program,” says Chadraoui, “This is our largest voucher program ever.”

But this type of short-term assistance has been heavily criticized by anti-foreign aid experts like renowned economist William Easterly who argue these types of programs often leave those they help dependent on the generosity of donors, which wane. Easterly compares these development initiatives to other disastrous ideologies: “Like communism and fascism, and the others before it, Developmentalism is a dangerous and deadly failure,” he wrote in 2007 in Foreign Policy. Specifically, “These experts see poverty as a purely technological problem, to be solved by engineering and the natural sciences, ignoring messy social sciences such as economics, politics, and sociology.”

As the Syrian refugee crisis reveals, it’s an incredibly complex paradox that El-Mahmoud himself is caught in: while the e-food program and its technology generate a psychological level of independence and takes care of immediate needs, it cannot provide the kind of economic independence he truly needs but that a program like the WFP cannot possibly provide.

As Chadraoui explained, based on talks she has had with refugees nearly every day in the field, "Most of the people I have talked to say that this electronic card is essential to them. They tell me that without the card they would be in the street or they would be begging. At least they do not worry about food. It is one less thing to worry about."

Correction: The article originally stated that the WFP's e-food program injected $40 million into host country economies. The correct number is $400 million.

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