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In Crisis, Mobile Phones to Deliver Humanitarian Aid

Sylvia Ross is the Senior Communications Officer at Mercy Corps.

A technological revolution is underway to deliver humanitarian assistance to the world’s hungry and victims of natural and man-made disasters – one that employs existing mobile phones to deliver aid to people in crisis. Mercy Corps has been part of this revolution for some time now, and its latest program ELEVATE has launched in Nepal – one of the poorest countries in the world.

In the Spring of 2013 Mercy Corps partnered with MasterCard Worldwide to pilot a mobile voucher distribution system that efficiently delivers aid to the poor through data applications and SMS messages. It is cost-effective and helps us reach people faster and more effectively than through traditional paper vouchers. And because it leverages electronic payment systems, it is also more transparent helping to reduce leakages and corruption.

Our Goal: Complete the pilot test in Nepal, test again in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and eventually roll out the system to be available globally.

We chose Nepal, a country in transition after 10 years of conflict, because poverty is rampant and we can anticipate there will be unexpected needs for assistance. The average Nepalese earns less than $1.30 a day and more than a quarter of the population survives below the poverty line, so there are families that would need assistance in the event of a crisis.  In addition, the geographical location puts Nepal at high risk of a major earthquake, especially in dense urban areas where population keeps increasing exponentially, so we know that there is a high potential for an unexpected crisis to occur.

Santu Maya Shahi, a 72-year-old matriarch of her nine-person household, is one of ELEVATE’s beneficiaries. As an older participant, she relies on her younger family members to help her with the technical aspect of using a mobile device.

Still, Santu Maya says “This is the first time I’ve done anything like this before. You need to continue this program – there are many needy people …all my thanks for bringing this program here.”

Providing urgent aid and stimulating local micro-economies is key to creating resilient communities, and we hope to scale this program beyond Nepal to at-risk populations where we can anticipate unexpected needs for assistance.