The United Nations food relief agency on Friday announced that a new electronic voucher program in Lebanon will allow hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to meet their food needs while boosting the local economy.
By the year's end, some 800,000 refugees could be using electronic cards, or "e-cards", at participating shops in Lebanon under an initiative realized with the technical support of the World Food Program (WFP), private sector partner, MasterCard, the WFP said in a news release.
"The new e-cards will allow Syrian refugees to choose the foods they want, when they want," Elisabeth Rasmusson, said WFP's assistant executive director for partnership and governance services.
Besides Lebanon, the WFP will be introducing a similar e-card program for Syrian refugees in Jordan, in a phased rollout for an initial 300,000 refugees by the end of 2013 that will continue into next year.
"We are grateful for MasterCard's assistance in setting up the e-voucher system in Lebanon and Jordan, the two countries hosting the largest number of refugees," Rasmusson said. "It's just one example of how our combined efforts can offer powerful and innovative ways to fight hunger."
The collaboration is part of a larger, multi-year partnership with MasterCard, launched in September 2012.
The new program was first tested in September for some 2,000 Syrian households in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, and is meant to replace WFP's paper vouchers.
Families will receive a card loaded monthly with 27 U.S. dollars per person, which can be redeemed against a list of items at participating local stores. That allows them to buy the foods that fit their needs, including fresh produce which is not normally included in traditional food rations.
"This is a real boon for Syrian refugees who have endured tremendous hardship over many months," said Muhannad Hadi, WFP's Emergency Coordinator for the Syrian crisis. "The e-cards also bring business to local merchants, and they make WFP's operations more time and cost effective. This is a win for all of us."
The e-cards reflect WFP's broader shift away from physical food deliveries to vouchers and other cutting-edge forms of assistance that can be more effective and have a larger impact, said the press release.
This year, the WFP has injected roughly 192 million U.S. dollars into the local economies of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt through voucher programs for refugees, it said.
The Syria response is WFP's largest and most complex emergency operation. The agency needs 30 million U.S. dollars each week to meet the needs of more than 4 million people affected by the conflict.