By Greg Barrow, World Food Programme
Around a decade ago, when I joined the U.N. World Food Programme, the agency was best known for the logistical muscle and expertise it could deploy in rapidly moving massive amounts of life-saving food in to help people caught up in disasters like earthquakes, floods and droughts.
We’re still known as the U.N.’s lead logistics agency, and when it comes to big disasters like the Haiti earthquake or the recent drought in the Sahel, the humanitarian community looks to WFP to deliver everything from food, to tents and medical supplies.
But alongside this traditional strength, WFP has been exploring other ways of delivering food to the hungry, and a quiet revolution that has been underway for some years now will take a major step forward this week with the launch of a new partnership with MasterCard, the technology and payments company.
Working with MasterCard, WFP is aiming to scale up its “digital food” delivery systems, providing more people with greater opportunities to access the money they need to buy their own food from local shops and markets.
There will always be a need for traditional life-saving food deliveries in big emergencies, but WFP – like many agencies working in areas where malnutrition rates are high and access to food is uncertain – has found that there are also many circumstances where the real issue is the affordability of food that is available in local shops and markets, and the lack of access the hungry poor have to this food.
And this is where direct payment methods become useful. There’s nothing new about this - and many agencies have been making cash and voucher transfers for years. But what’s exciting about this week’s partnership launch with MasterCard is the potential we now have to harness digital technology in a transformative way that could revolutionise WFP’s food assistance programmes through electronic voucher transfers.
WFP has already piloted successful digital food transfer programmes in places like the Philippines, where flood victims have received special codes via mobile phones that they can use to access cash payments to pay for food in local shops. Our office in Manila described the mobile system as a kind of “digital wallet” that allowed the safe transfer of money, and removed the logistical and security challenge to WFP of distributing cash on a regular basis.
In Kenya, WFP is working with a local bank to provide cash payments to communities affected by seasonal food shortages that can be picked up from agents using portable electronic cash terminals. Similar successful “digital food” programmes have been piloted in Zambia, Syria, Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories.
These pilot programmes are all part of WFP’s strategic shift from delivering food aid to delivering food assistance, looking more broadly at the ways in which we can provide people living in food-insecure areas with the means to access nutritious food for their families. And while there is already significant in-house expertise at WFP, it is through partnerships with other agencies, governments and the private sector that we have the potential to make a quantum leap.
Combining MasterCard’s track record at the cutting edge of developing digital payment systems with WFP’s five decades of experience working on the frontlines of hunger gives us the opportunity to explore just how far we can scale up “digital food” delivery programmes. WFP works in some of the most remote, inaccessible and lawless parts of the world, but one of the more remarkable aspects of the forward march of technology is that even in places that lack roads and basic infrastructure, there is often digital coverage through mobile phone networks.
Tapping into these networks and realising the potential for “digital food” delivery systems will allow us to address hunger and malnutrition, but it also has other benefits. By introducing digital food delivery systems, WFP can help promote financial inclusion, as well as support local businesses and markets.
“Digital food” delivery systems can stimulate demand within local economies, and encourage sustainable changes to how food is accessed and supplied. Perhaps more than anything, it empowers vulnerable people to make more choices about how and what they feed their families, and be in greater control of their own destiny.
“Digital food” delivery systems are also one of the most transparent ways of making a transfer and can help root out leakages and corruption. We’re still some way off this becoming the main mechanism for delivering food assistance at WFP, but this week’s step takes us closer to our goal of identifying more countries and communities that can benefit from this approach and be part of this ongoing revolution.
Greg Barrow is the World Food Programme’s spokesman for the UK and Republic of Ireland.