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Middle East

UN launches app to help feed Syrian refugee children

© Khalil Mazraawi, AFP | Children playing at the Zaatari refugee camp in March 2014

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2015-11-12

The UN launched a new app on Thursday that will allow people tucking into a meal to virtually “share” it with a Syrian refugee. The first of its kind, the app is hoped to transform the way we connect to those in need.

Called “ShareTheMeal,” users of the app can send 50 cents (€0.50) or more to the World Food Programme (WFP) at the touch of a button on their smartphone, effectively providing a Syrian child in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp with at least a day’s worth of food.

Tested in Germany since July, the app has already been heralded as a game-changer in connecting the public with refugees, picking up one of the country’s leading media awards as “startup of the year” and named “one of 15 ideas for a better world” by Wired magazine Germany.

Some 80,000 people -- more than half of them children -- live in the Zaatari camp, a three-year-old shantytown which sprawls across the Jordanian desert a few kilometres south of the Syrian border. Every single family in the camp depends on the WFP for food assistance, along with the hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians elsewhere in the region.

But the programme suffers from an unreliable source of income. In December 2014, the WFP announced cuts to 1.7 million Syrian refugees as it struggled to meet the demands of millions of people, and in July 2015, further cuts were made to the program after a lull in media interest led to a drop in donations.

“Public interest in the Syria crisis has fluctuated and it’s certainly true that by early summer 2015 the Syria crisis had largely fallen off the news, and therefore the public radar,” Jonathan Campbell, the WFP’s emergency coordinator for Syrian refugees in Jordan, told FRANCE 24.

Today, that’s no longer the case. The ongoing migrant crisis in Europe and the daily horror it brings to the doorsteps of Westerners, notably the drowning of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, have “regenerated interest” in the plight of Syrian refugees, Campbell says.

Unlike traditional donor campaigns, which rely on significant and modest contributions (the current asking amount of the WFP’s Syria page is $5 to $500), ShareTheMeal is designed to appeal to an unusually wide audience, by asking for very little from each user -- 50 cents is the minimum -- and making it exceptionally easy to do so.

“It costs so little to feed a child, and we know people want to help. I just found a way of making it as easy as possible for them to do that,” founder Sebastian Stricker, who came up with the idea during a sabbatical break from the WFP in 2014, told FRANCE 24.

With 20 million smartphone users worldwide to every hungry child, Stricker points out that the potential is “enormous”.

Cautiously optimistic

During a four-month trial in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, some 120,000 people downloaded the app, raising more than $850,000 US dollars (€790,000) for school children in Lesotho. The programme effectively closed the hunger gap for every one of the country’s 1.7 million under-fed children.

“We were overwhelmed,” Stricker says. “A lot more people were using it than we thought.”

Nonetheless, Stricker is cautiously optimistic. Not every user around the world will donate $7 over the course of four months, as those in German-speaking Europe did. Also, his team is expecting there to be an initial “hype,” which will later stabilise -- as happened with the test.

But for those in the Zaatari camp, which will be the only beneficiary of the app initially, its launch is hoped to prove a pivotal point for Syrian refugees.

The Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees on September 19, 2015. © Khalil Mazraawi, AFP

UN aid worker Nasreddine Touaibia, who has been at Zaatari since 2012, says that keeping children fed is not only about their survival, but the future of Syria.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 from the camp, Touaibia explained that if children are not being fed, their parents become desperate and are more likely to send them out to work in order to contribute to the household, thereby depriving them of crucial years of learning.

“We need to remember that this generation of Syrians are the ones who will be rebuilding Syria when it is safe to go back,” he said, stressing the importance of education. To try to keep kids in school, the WFP has started handing out meals at school, rather than only through parents. Initial results show a 20% boost in attendance, Touaibia said.

Fresh start

The app could prove a crucial boon to the WFP at a time when a string of major scandals has tarnished the UN’s reputation. A BBC report published in October revealed painful inefficiencies in the WFP funding process, leaving donors wary of a flawed system.

ShareTheMeal, which promises to transform 90 percent of the money sent through the app into real food, is part of a series of new initiatives designed to counter any sense of distance between donor and receiver, which could encourage those eager to help.

Campbell is hoping that the app will “build linkages between those people in more fortunate parts of the world with those who are living in more troubled areas", something which Stricker believes will keep users coming back to the app. While linking one user to one family would be a wasteful process, Stricker hopes that featuring certain families on the app will satisfy a donor’s need to see where their money is going, in a way that traditional campaigns have failed to do.

Another new scheme, “Lifeline Appeal”, allows donors to send money directly into the bank accounts of needy Syrian families, cutting out overhead charges completely (with the exception of a 2 percent bank charge). Refugees can also withdraw money from iris-equipped ATMs, which identifies them by scanning their eyes. These innovations, as Touaibia puts it, “allows refugees to take charge of their own lives and to live with more dignity”. Some 25,000 families have already benefited from the technology.

The WFP’s efforts to keep the refugees of Zaatari in place go beyond their own needs, but look to the future of Syria, too. Western nations recognise that if refugees stay near to Syria, they are more likely to return to the country and help to rebuild it. For those in the field, it is crucial to make their lives in the camp as painless as possible, not only in the hope of preventing them from attempting a perilous journey into Europe.

However, both the app's donors and beneficiaries recognise such initiatives as a sticking plaster. “This app is not going to solve all our problems,” Stricker says. “We know that the suffering of these children will only be truly alleviated when we get a political solution to the Syrian conflict.”

Date created : 2015-11-12

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