Freakonomics points attention to the World Food Program's (WFP) decision to deliver food vouchers to Iraqi refugee families in Syria through mobile phones using SMS text messaging.
The WFP will send a 22-dollar (15-euro) voucher every two months by SMS to each family (who will be provided with a special SIM card), who can then exchange the electronic voucher for rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil, canned fish, cheese and eggs at selected shops. Eight food items are covered by this and three shops are designated to redeem the vouchers. This system provides families with the freedom to select food of their own choice, at any selected shop and at any time they wish.
The beneficiary shows his voucher and a code displayed on his mobile phone to the cashier at the shop. Once the shopkeeper enters the code, the value of items are deducted from the beneficiary's account. After this transaction, the beenficiary receives a new SMS text with an updated balance and a new secret code. This way he can redeem his voucher either in one transaction or multiple transactions.
The Electronic Voucher System is being implemented in collaboration with the General Establishment for Storing and Marketing Agriculture and Animal Products (GESMAAP), a Syrian Ministry of Economy and Trade body. Prior to its implementation, WFP provides training to GESMAAP employees and equips the selected GESMAAP shops with the necessary equipment and software. Information sessions for refugees are held at UNHCR distribution centre and four dedicated hotline numbers are available to respond to refugees' queries. The mobile phone service provider MTN donated SIM cards for the project, with one year of free SMS service for the refugees.
Our Public Distribution System (PDS) could take a leaf out of this and effectively target the delivery of rations under the scheme. Mobile phones can help overcome the targeting problem by SMS-ing the monthly ration vouchers directly to the consumer, who can in turn show the SMS and avail of his ration from his designated ration shop.
Update 1 (23/2/2011)
After the success of the initial pilot, the WFP has now extended it to cover 9600 families, up from the initial pilot for 1000 families. Each family receives one voucher, worth US$30, per person, per two-month cycle.