Better Tech, Not More Food, Will Keep the World’s Poor Fed
Call up a mental image of the World Food Programme’s work, and you’ll most likely envision lines—endless lines of hungry people. Lines so long that field workers occasionally erect shelters to shield the waiting crowds from the scorching sun. Lines that, eventually, lead to towering piles of sacks stuffed with wheat and rice that must last those receiving them, and their families, for a month.
Such lines always have been considered a necessary evil of delivering aid to those who need it most. But the World Food Programme is working on technology that could make those lines—and even the food stations they lead to—a thing of the past.
The organization has spent two years developing a digital system that allows beneficiaries to receive regular cash transfers, either by SMS or on a chip card, so they can buy what they need themselves. The goal is to eventually create a world in which the World Food Programme doesn’t, well, have to give away quite so much food.
Shuttling millions of metric tons of food around the world made sense in the 1960s when the program launched, says Jacob Kern, the World Food Programme’s chief technology officer. At the time, it was the only way. Gradually, globalization allowed the organization to source many staples locally, instead of shipping them “halfway around the Earth,” as Kern says, from places like the US and Europe. Now, technology is enabling another major shift.
“WFP itself is moving from analog assistance, meaning we give beneficiaries food, to digital assistance,” Kern says.
Food aid experts say that move is a smart one, given how much cheaper it is to send cash digitally than it is to deliver tons of food to often war-torn regions. “It makes a ton of sense both in terms of speed and cost efficiency,” says Marshall Burke, an assistant professor at Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment. “They’ll be able to reach a lot more people and reach them more quickly.”
Where Money, Not Food, Is the Problem
One emerging method of digital assistance the organization is working on today is a biometric chip card, which beneficiaries can use at local stores that have relationships with the World Food Programme to buy wheat, rice, oil, cooking supplies, and other goods. The World Food Programme works with these stores to ensure they have the inventory they need head of time. It also works with banks and cellular providers, who can give people cash outright. The chip cards are all secured with the beneficiary’s fingerprint to combat fraud, and the organization is also experimenting with emerging technology like iris scanning.
According to Kern, this system makes sense in an age when so many of the world’s poor are flooding to urban centers where food is plentiful but where the money to buy it is not. Plus, he argues, it sustains the local businesses in the area.
“If you’re a shop owner in Zimbabwe, and I tell you I have 10,000 customers who will come every month with $10, what do you do?” Kern says. “You go to Zambia, you buy a truckful of food and drive it over, because you know you can sell it.”
Who Is Hungry
But this is more than just a logistics upgrade. These new systems also provide the World Food Programme with an unprecedented level of data on the 80 million people it serves. Where once the organization was handing rice to anonymous faces in labyrinthine lines, now it’s registering individuals one by one, collecting information on their families, their spending patterns, their buying patterns, and their health and education to learn more about the needs in any given place, among any given population.
“If you know you want to support all the pregnant women,” Kern says, “once we’ve registered them, we can follow up, and see what their patterns are in terms of food what they’re buying, when they’re buying, and how often they’re buying.”
According to Burke, this data is critical. “This is such an unbelievably data-poor environment. If they can layer data on top of the distribution networks, that would be huge both for their work and also broader research and understanding.”
One Card for Everything
Of course, this means the World Food Programme must be equally careful about managing that data. It already has committed to never share the data with a commercial entity or government. It will, however, share data with other NGOs, like, say, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNICEF. Those agencies also are registering people and uploading data to the World Food Programme’s database. The hope is that people living in at-risk areas will only have to use one card to get access to everything they need.
While technology can streamline much of the World Food Programme’s work, however, it’s unlikely the organization will entirely stop giving away food. In disaster regions like Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and remote areas like the Dadaab refugee camp on the border of Kenya, direct shipments of food remain vital—and lifesaving. As it stands, only 3 million of 80 million beneficiaries are in the World Food Program’s database.
But even that is progress. Earlier this year, Kern says, only a few hundred thousand people were registered. He hopes to have one third of the population in the database in the next two years, and says the organization is even planning on proactively registering people in at-risk areas.
The World Food Program, he says, is in a prime position to lead this effort, because the population it serves is, unfortunately, so sprawling. “The 80 million people we support, everybody else has a subset of that,” he says. “UNICEF may have the children. UNHCR may have the refugees. But everybody needs food.”