Food vouchers to ensure free choice for beneficiaries and a dynamic local economy

Article, 18.05.2016

The World Food Programme is assisting four million people in Syria – the vast majority of them internally displaced – who are struggling to find enough food to feed themselves and their families. The SDC is supporting the WFP in Syria with CHF 1.3 million in 2016 and through the secondment of technical experts, one of whom is coordinating the cash transfer programmes devised by the WFP as an alternative to the direct distribution of food.

Stefan Bumbacher, accompanied by a WFP colleague, talking with a group of displaced persons.
Stefan Bumbacher (centre, holding a file) meeting a group of displaced Syrians housed in a school in Al-Hasakah Governorate in Syria. © WFP

As the Syrian crisis enters its sixth year, hundreds of thousands of Syrians who remained in the country are struggling to feed themselves. With businesses closing down and agricultural production in decline, food has become increasingly scarce on the market.

The World Food Programme (WFP) acts to combat this food shortage in a number of ways, distributing food to the most vulnerable, helping to restore agricultural infrastructure and trying to establish cash transfer programmes wherever possible. In the latter case, beneficiaries receive vouchers that allow them to purchase food from partner shops, and thus to decide for themselves what they eat.

As a specialist working for the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, Stefan Bumbacher from Zurich has been coordinating the cash transfer pilot projects launched by the WFP in several parts of Syria since January 2016.

Stefan, who are the beneficiaries of the cash transfer programmes you are currently developing?

Mainly people displaced by the war but also other vulnerable population groups. For example, I am currently working on a project aimed at 8000 pregnant women and nursing mothers in the cities of Homs and Latakia. They receive vouchers to buy fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products from shopkeepers accredited by the WFP. The aim is to ensure the healthy development of infants during their first months of life.

Looking at it from the beneficiaries' point of view, what does this food assistance in the form of coupons actually change?

It gives them the choice over what they eat. It also benefits local shopkeepers who are able to keep staff or even create new jobs. In short, the cash transfer programmes enable pockets of life to go on in Syria, despite the ongoing crisis.

Explain to us, how is it possible to use cash transfers in such a volatile, conflictual context as Syria?

It's true that the situation in Syria is still generally very unstable, so the possibilities for implementing cash transfer programmes are limited. Moreover, as with all the humanitarian aid currently being deployed in Syria, it is difficult to make cash transfers available to everyone who needs them. At the moment, we can only distribute coupons in the zones controlled by the government, for example.

But you also have to understand that not everything in the country is in total chaos and in ruins. The old town of Homs, for example, is completely destroyed. But other parts of the city are intact, with shops and supermarkets open for business and functioning as normal. This is where our projects can make a difference.

How do you adapt the value of the vouchers to local market prices?

That is a crucial question. We face a real challenge from the considerable drop in the value of the local currency and the rise in food prices. In 12 months the cost of flour has risen by more than half and rice has almost doubled in price. The WFP analyses the market prices on an ongoing basis and adapts the value of the vouchers accordingly.

We are also aware that the distribution of vouchers leads to increased demand for the products concerned. Before launching a cash transfer programme we therefore make sure that local factories have enough raw materials for the production of foodstuffs and ultimately that the shops have enough goods in stock. Otherwise, prices inevitably rise.

Does the WFP promote any other forms of cash transfer in Syria apart from these vouchers?

No. Given the context, the vouchers are for the time being the best option. The dysfunctional banking system and damage to telecommunications infrastructure prevent us from using more sophisticated means. We did consider introducing cash transfers via debit cards or mobile phones, but that proved not to be practicable.