Cell phones have proven to be invaluable tools for igniting growth in the developing world: For example, African farmers rich with surplus might never have known that a region nearby is nearly starving; the crop would rot, and both regions would be worse off. But now, cell phones allow farmers to create impromptu markets on the fly, based on demand.
There's a new stage in the evolution of cell phone use: Delivering international aid via text message. As the AFP reports:
In a test project targeting 1,000 Iraqi refugee families, the United Nations agency 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.
The beneficiary can then exchange the electronic voucher for rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil, canned fish, cheese and eggs at selected shops.
Addressing concerns about mobile phone ownership among the refugee population, WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella said all the 130,000 Iraqi refugees currently receiving food aid from the agency in Syria have mobile phones.
As Foreign Policy remarks, "We've reached a very strange point in human history when it is assumed that people who don't have access to food will have working cell phones."
A good point, but then again, the problem for most of these refugees is that they can't find jobs—although they had some income before the war began. These are people who obviously have already have some possessions—namely, cell phones. The question is, what's the quickest, most efficient way to get them help?
And that's the ingenuity of the cell phone idea: It makes use of something that Iraqis already have and stands in for a physical distribution network that would otherwise be hard to set up, police, and manage.
Plus, the program solves some of the usual impediments to international aid. Note that the U.N. isn't simply giving food away—rather, it's giving families the money to buy food. And that, in turn, pumps money into the local economy, giving local merchants added business and boosting employment.
All that's been done via paper vouchers. But the SMS development's benefits are twofold, each of them addressing the legendary short-comings of the U.N.'s food programs: One, you can distribute aid more quickly, in a more targeted fashion. And two, you make it harder for a black market to spring up—and black markets have sent other food-aid programs in Africa and elsewhere spiraling into disaster. With paper-voucher programs, it's all too easy to steal vouchers and resell them. With an SMS voucher, it's much harder to steal a person's cell phone; moreover, you might be able to steal the SIM cards being distributed, but those should be fairly easy to track and disable.