Can Mobile Phones Help Provide Better Food Assistance to Refugees?

Today, more than 50 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced, living in refugee camps in their own countries or seeking asylum in others. As the number of refugees around the world grows, organizations and governments are under more and more pressure to face the effects of conflict.

“We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in a statement. “Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue.”

But until we come to those political solutions, we as a global community have to deal with the needs of millions and millions of people. Often located in conflict zones, providing refugee camps with the most basic supplies can be tough and dangerous, and on budgets that are getting more and more limited, humanitarian organizations are having to think outside the box to ensure that they can continue to do their work.

One such example is the United Nations World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian agency, supplying more than 80 million people with food assistance when they need it the most. It’s important for such organizations to know about the communities that they feed, especially since food shortages can fuel already escalating conflict. But with new groups of people fleeing their homes on a regular basis, how do you assess the needs of refugee camps?

The usual option is to put people on the ground to gather information, but in conflict zones this can be dangerous.

“We would send enumerators where we could,” Arif Husain, chief economist at the WFP, told The Guardian. “But there are many UN ‘no-go zones’. So there were instances where we flew in by helicopter and had two hours to figure out what is going on with 100,000 people. The idea now is that anything that gets us information from places without putting boots on the ground is a good thing.”

In 2012, the WFP started exploring the potentials of mobile technology to gather that information instead, allowing the organization to act more quickly, but also do so on a smaller budget. The WFP estimates that it could save up to 40% on the cost of data collection by using mobile technology.

How does it work? The WFP’s project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a good example. According to The Guardian:

In refugee camps around eastern DRC, the WFP gave out 300 basic phones and used a WFP-based live call centre to conduct surveys assessing what people were eating, how much and how often. After six rounds of surveys, 72% of the original survey group still answered calls, indicating that the phones are seen as a valuable asset for families.

“Whatever we do here is driven by the rule that it has to translate into action for someone who really depends on us. We have to realize quickly what is working and what is not. That is why all of these pilots are being done in different ways – to find out where the bottlenecks are and to see how quickly we can adjust,” Husein told The Guardian.

Ultimately, the mission of the WFP is to continue to provide food and meet the needs of the people it works with. So will mobile technology replace classic data collection? That depends on whether or not it remains effective.

Photo Credit: European Commission DG


Jim Ven
Jim V11 months ago

thanks for the article.

ERIKA S2 years ago

noted,thank you

Alan Lambert
Alan Lambert2 years ago

Fascinating article, if it works, use it.

Anna Wang
Anna Meng Wang2 years ago


sue higgins
sue higgins2 years ago

it does seem like a good idea it might even stop the sabotage of food even getting there but i am confused as to..... if this is for a developing country or a war zone then where or how do they charge their mobile phones and what happens if they can't get a signal ! news in this case is not necessarily a good one !

Arild Warud
Arild W2 years ago


Geoff P.
Geoff P2 years ago

Who knows

John chapman
John chapman2 years ago

As someone who remembers when most people had one phone in their home & it belonged to the phone company.

The explosive growth of mobile phones, & the things that can be done with them, is mind boggling.