Debit Cards and Food Security: Sustainable Solutions to Lebanon’s Massive Refugee Crisis

DSCN8566It all started when I was wearing goofy glasses and a white imitation fur vest in front of two big lights and a camera in a building down town with the fabulous Young Wilderness crew. Yasmine works for the UN’s World Food Program during the day, and after my field missions with the UNHCR, I was very eager to witness and experience first-hand the work of other UN bodies involved with the massive efforts to respond, manage and improve the jaw-droppingly intense Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon. So, Yasmine was kind enough to arrange it, and yesterday, we all met up at the WFP headquarters and headed down south.

Yasmine, Laure, Kevork, Hassan and me in the white Toyota SUVs with the diplomatic license made the 2 hour drive down to Tebnine and Bint Jbeil. The schedule was intense, and it included post-distribution monitoring missions, which involve visiting refugees’ homes and interviewing them, as well as checking up on local shops the WFP signed contracts with to make sure they’re keeping prices fair, treating refugees properly and ensuring the new e-card system is functioning properly.

What is the Blue E-Card?


Food assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon has evolved since the start of the refugee influx. What started out as parcels full of essentials like wheat, sugar, oil and other basic food stuffs, morphed into coupons that can be redeemed for the refugees’ choice of items at designated shops and finally, became a blue debit card that refills every month and has already been given to 150,000 Syrians residing in Lebanon. The e-card has many benefits, and most important of which are:

  • No need for refugees to report to WFP distribution centers every months for parcels or coupons, the cards automatically refill every month.
  • No need to cash in the entire amount in one go, like the coupons. Instead, cardholders can purchase items for as low as 2USD, allowing them to better regulate and pace their purchases
  • It helps local Lebanese businesses, since the WFP only signs contracts with local shops and encourage the purchase of locally-produced items. There’s already been a hundred million dollars injected into local communities, allowing the assistance given by international donors to go into the Lebanese market, instead of suppliers abroad.
  • It’s more dignified. A refugee can go shop like any other resident in Lebanon, choose whatever they need, and pay at the register with their card. No standing in line for “i3ashet”, no long cues at distribution centers, and a small semblance of the normalcy they once enjoyed in Syria.
  • It saves a lot of time, money and labor. Distribution centers need a lot of staff, getting there requires transportation costs and going through the procedures every month takes a lot of working hours. With the card, refugees need to make one trip to get their card, and from then on, the card recharges automatically. So, no cues, no paperwork, no transportation costs and overwhelmed UN and UN partner staffers.

E-Card Numbers

  • 150,000 cards already distributed
  • South and Bekaa already activated, with 25 local shops on contract
  • North will start implementation in December
  • 27USD per month, per individual is the amount allocated. So, a family of 4 would have 108USD to spend per month
  • Current cards expire in 2016
  • MasterCard and BLF are the folks making it happen (MasterCard CSR, BLF won the lowest bid)
  • Special machines distributed for the cards


What This Means

It means that sometimes, basic, one-off aid isn’t enough. It means that our response to refugee crises that lasted only months or weeks in recent Lebanese history, is inadequate. The key now is sustainability, to make sure aid is used wisely and can be maintained, monitored and distributed as effectively as possible, to those who need it the most. Refugee numbers are sobering, and they are constantly on the rise, whereas aid is pretty much at a standstill, meaning the already non-sufficient funds need to be prudently spent. This of course means fewer people qualify for food aid, and some 30% of refugees in Lebanon are excluded from this program, but are constantly reassessed to make sure when a family needs it, they can get the aid they need.

At least a quarter of the population in Lebanon is now Syrian refugees, and with no near end in sight for the unrest in Syria, solutions need to take into consideration long-term plans and ensure that Lebanon suffers as little as possible from the adverse effects of such a massive influx of people in need of assistance, jobs, homes, schools, hospitals and infrastructure.

When we were at Iyyad’s house, which was  a basement with a bathroom, a few thin mattresses in the corners, makeshift curtains and a kitchen on the stairwell, I asked him if he had used debit cards before, and luckily, he had, and so did many other refugees we met. Others are not so fortunate, and very few can read English, which made me wonder if the e-card system was easy enough to get used to, and it was, apparently. While tiny Ahmad scurried about to get a tiny broom and dust pan and clean up the entrance to his home upon his arrival, his dad explained how the 150 refugee families in that town had largely had no problems with the card, and expressed genuine relief it replaced the coupons and parcels they had gotten used to.

So, it was a success, by all means, and that was a story I was glad to hear in the sea of unpleasant refugee-related news. Of course, this is only a small part of a much bigger bouquet of solutions needed, but given the scale of the crises, the ineptness of Lebanon to deal with it and the meager funds by international donors, it’s looking like a resounding success.

The best part is, the WFP wholeheartedly follows up on this, to make sure everything is ok. That’s something rare in Lebanon, we usually overlook anomalies and malpractice, and dismiss it as “business as usual”, but today, Kevork and Yasmine took their time and a lot of patience to gather as much information as possible for their comprehensive questionnaires to try to piece together what the refugees were eating, whether or not its healthy, balanced, fair-priced, easily accessible and stable, and how well the e-card system is running and if the specified shops are sticking to the guidelines. We need more monitoring and follow-up like this in Lebanon…

To donate to the WFP, go here.


  1. Maddie says

    This lit up my heart. Everywhere I go these days, all I seem to hear is “bas ken na2so lebnen yejo el syrian” and bullshit like that about how filthy they are. I would hate to think that if another huge war erupted in Lebanon, we’d be talked about the same in neighboring countries if we had to evacuate there. Is it true that Syrian refugee get free ,,medical assistance at whatever hospital they choose? I hear that a lot but I wonder if there’s truth to it.

  2. Rawad A. says

    The WFP aims to assist at least 800,000 by the end of the year with the new electronic or “e-card” system, which will be valid at participating grocery shops across Lebanon. The project was initiated by WFP with the technical support of MasterCard, its private sector partner. There are about 300 participating small- to medium-sized shops across the country. Over 12,650 e-cards were distributed in the cities Tyre, Sidon, Baabda and Bint Jbeil this week
    WFP has already injected $82 million into the Lebanese economy with the system.
    The program will directly benefit registered refugees, of which there are about 780,000 registered and awaiting registration according to recent figures.


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