How the UN is using cellphones to improve conditions for Boko Haram victims

The World Food Programme (WFP) is combating the chaos Boko Haram has created in Northern Nigeria by providing victims with help through mobile money.


Their destruction has left many people in northeastern Nigeria internally displaced or refugees in neighbouring countries such as Cameroon and Chad.

Since the conflict heightened in 2009, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates “more than 20,000 people have been killed, and over 2,000 women and girls have been abducted. 2.5 million people have fled their homes, of whom 2.2 million are internally displaced, and 177,000 are seeking refuge in the neighbouring countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Farmlands and livestock have also been left behind leading to a shortfall in food supplies; figures from UNOCHA presents a dire picture.

“3.9 million people in the North-East are food insecure, and 2.5 million are malnourished, especially children and pregnant and lactating women.”

As such, aid from the World Food Programme (WFP) is very much needed. One way the organisation is sifting through the chaos to provide critical services is with the help of mobile money.

The mobile money service (operated by local telecom providers) allows users to save, receive and transfer money from their cell phones. The great thing about the technology is that it works with all kinds of phones; not necessarily smart phones.

Every month, internally displaced people (IDPs) receive a text message alerting them about the latest WFP cash transferred to them using the medium. They can then withdraw the amount, 17,000 nairas (about 210 cedis), to buy food at any of the nearby markets.

According to WFP, more than 100,000 people depend on the monthly transfers to feed their families and cater for other basic family essentials.

This becomes the latest in what the WFP describes as ‘a strategic rethink’ that will see a move from the concept of food aid to food assistance instead. The world’s biggest humanitarian agency describes food assistance as “a more complex understanding of people’s long-term nutritional needs and of the diverse approaches required to meet them.”

“[It also recognizes] that hunger does not occur in a vacuum... It means we must concentrate time, resources and efforts on the most vulnerable in society.”

Cash-based transfers can take the form of food vouchers, stamps, bank transfers or physical cash.

Women are usually the beneficiaries of these cash transfers. That is because in these parts (just like much of the world) they are in charge of feeding their families.

There are numerous advantages to cash-transfers.

Giving money offers choice. Women can determine what is right for their families instead of the UN dictating to them by shipping sacks of grain and oil to them. They can tailor menus to foods that are ‘locally rooted and seasonally appropriate. Special dietary needs can be accommodated.’

Sending money is also cheaper, faster and secure. Transporting large sacks is a costly venture for an organisation that is in always in need to donations. This becomes especially crucial in emergencies.

The transfers also stimulates local businesses. They inject into the local economies of the towns hosting the IDPs, ensures the circulation of money and growth. Food imports hurt the local economies.

The UN still hands out food to refugees in Nigeria to supplement what is available and now only deploys food handouts in camps that are farm any markets where food can be supplied locally.


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