The value of vouchers: Innovation and empowerment in Iraq

ICT4D, Protection

Corrie Sissons introduces a new e-voucher technology helping to meet the unique needs of households living through the Iraq crisis.

Oxfam staff distribute goods to beneficiaries in Iraq.

Oxfam staff distribute goods to beneficiaries in Iraq. Credit: Sam Tarling

The changing nature of humanitarian crises in a modern world means that agencies like Oxfam need to adapt to ensure we meet needs in an effective way. Oxfam in Iraq has been piloting a new approach that does just that; working with local traders and a new e-voucher technology which enables conflict affected households to access essential items. The One Solution e-voucher technology methodology has seen great success in the Iraqi context, where tech savvy communities and the traders that serve them, can use the system to buy and sell with ease, meaning people get critical items in a more rapid and efficient manner.

Each household under the project receives a plastic card, much like a debit card, with a micro chip hidden inside it. These cards, act as e-vouchers and can be ‘read’ by terminals handed out to selected vendors, selling items chosen by Oxfam in participation with households to ensure they have a choice in how to meet their unique and immediate needs. Items available range from essential food items such as rice, cooking oil, sugar or tea to hygiene items. Households are also given a small amount of cash, which they can withdraw from local money transfer agents at times convenient to them and use to meet a range of other immediate needs such as paying rent, repaying debts or healthcare.

This is a great way of meeting needs and supporting local economies. Feedback from local traders and money transfer agents has been positive so far, however there were some hiccups to begin with. Some vendors for example, had difficulty with the Bluetooth printers provided because they put the paper in backwards or had not initiated the Bluetooth capability – but this was easily fixed with support from Oxfam teams. Traders now report ease at using the system, for beneficiaries to enter pin codes and payment too. The system records all transactions so if receipts are lost there is a backup.

“A great way of meeting needs and supporting local economies”

Compared to giving goods in-kind, using the One Solution e-voucher technology empowers households to choose, in a dignified way, what their needs are. It’s also logistically easier to implement for Oxfam teams, who in many countries have to procure and distribute large amounts of physical goods, if markets are not strong enough to support this kind of programme.

Beneficiaries participating in the Iraq pilot were all grateful for the flexibility the One Solution e-voucher technology brought, as it allowed them to buy items which met their specific needs. People appreciated being able to choose brands which they preferred and women in particular said it made them feel dignified and empowered to be able to choose items themselves, rather than have agencies choose for them.

Going forwards, Oxfam staff will work closely with finance and logistics teams to ensure a scale-up of the technology works smoothly and that other countries can benefit from the approach. As this technology is relatively new it’s important to ensure that Oxfam’s internal systems are able to cope with the software and system requirements so that we can rapidly deploy the One Solution e-voucher approach in other crises around the world.

Given the deteriorating security situation in some humanitarian crises, there are obvious advantages to being able to distribute and  track vouchers remotely. Oxfam is already looking into using e-vouchers in countries such as Nigeria, where ongoing insecurity caused by Boko Haram can mean Oxfam staff do not have access to some areas. There is also exciting potential to scale the technology to provide people with vouchers to meet needs for goods and services such as water and sanitation as well as protection.

Author
Corrie Sissons

Corrie Sissons

Corrie Sissons is Oxfam’s Global Cash and Markets Advisor. She has worked in humanitarian food security with a focus on cash and markets for the last 7 years and now supports Oxfam’s global portfolio of cash and markets work from HQ.